Book Review: Black Boots and Football Pinks: 50 Lost Wonders of the Beautiful Game by Daniel Gray

I have already waxed lyrical (twice!) about Daniel Gray’s football books on this site (Saturday, 3pm: 50 Eternal Delights of Modern Football and Extra Time: 50 Further Delights of Modern Football), so to head off any claims of sounding repetitive, I will clarify from the get-go that once more I am about to wax lyrical. But it’s simply impossible to do otherwise, such is the joy and brilliance of Gray’s writing, so forgive me indulging one more time.

Unlike Gray’s other two books which meditate on the delights of modern football, Black Boots and Football Pinks takes a slightly different approach, as signified by its subtitle – 50 Lost Wonders of the Beautiful Game. Indeed, this is a book that celebrates the nostalgic, a time before football became the slick, commercialised beast of modernity, where shirts were tucked in and Teletext ruled (those under 30 may need to google it). As per the style of his other books, Gray’s fifty titbits take the form of perfectly sized missives on each of his chosen themes, and it’s one of the strengths of Gray’s writing that he uses these shorter-form compositions – for that is what they are – compositions, rather than essays – which ensure that the subject matters remain vibrant and full of life rather than becoming drawn out and laborious. Gray knows his football-fan readership want action-packed, end-to-end drama, not a staid 0-0 draw of a book and that’s exactly what this format gives. It also allows for a clarity and intensity to the writing, in which every word matters and does its job. There is no waffling or rambling here, no digressing or circumlocution, just perfectly formed written showpieces, which once again illustrate Gray’s brilliant skills as a wordsmith.

In terms of the themes of chapters, they offer a smorgasbord of throwbacks to football’s not-so-distant past, but depending on your age, some of these may seem utterly implausible – shabby training grounds, really? – or sail completely over your head – pixelated scoreboards, what sorcery is that? For other readers, these lost wonders will be as clear as yesterday – ramshackle dugouts and radios bringing the scores from elsewhere – and will bring a sense of nostalgia, of simpler times. And whilst a lot of Gray’s highlights are largely consigned to the footballing dumping ground these days, some of them still make a rare appearance and when they do, it’s all the more magical. Step forward Kieran Tierney, a master of old-school shirt etiquette, who rigidly tucks his shirt in each match, whilst around him, team-mates and opposition go for style over substance. Step forward too, Igor Akinfeev. Who? you may ask. CSKA’s goalkeeper. Why him? you may probe. Because he is that rarest of modern footballers – a one-club man (so far), with over 600 appearances for the Russian outfit and a tenure of thirty years, spanning his youth career. Fortunately, we haven’t lost terrible goal kicks or foul throws either, nor have they lost their appeal for fans. And this season’s FA Cup also delivered us one of the other great joys of football of old as highlighted by Gray – homes with views into grounds – thank you Marine AFC. How we all longed to be sat in those back gardens in the middle of January. And for better, or worse, depending on your outlook, we haven’t entirely yet lost luxury, superfluous players. I can think of several to have graced the Premier League in recent years, and a few still who epitomise Gray’s description: ‘He had no exact position, no duty other than creation. His game was not rounded; his tackling was grim. He had no function beyond entertainment.’ Yes, there are definitely some players who fit the bill.

In contrast, paper tickets and player brawls are certainly somewhat waning traditions. The former, which once bloated scrapbooks, now replaced, as with most things, with an electronic version – e-tickets, whilst the latter, perhaps not missed by the puritans, has largely been eroded with players who are wont to drop to the ground at the slightest touch rather than square up to their ‘aggressor’, with ‘brawls’ usually consigned to the side-lines or tunnels these days. Of those lost wonders Gray pinpoints, the dearth of old-fashioned wingers is a particular source of sadness, so too the lesser-spotted big man/little man combination up front, which provided many an entertainment, and goal in days gone by. And don’t even get me started on multiple cup replays. Yes, teams bemoan the hectic schedule, but what fan doesn’t want to see a six-match thriller(?) played over 17 days with nine goals added to the mix (admittedly, there were two 0-0 draws in there), a la Alvechurch and Oxford City in the longest FA cup tie in history in November 1971.

But whether it’s genuinely extinct phenomena, like Ceefax, disappearing traditions like ‘home away, home away’ or dormant but potentially revivable aspects like understated goal celebrations, whether it’s traditions that fans are glad to see the back of or those they rue with undisguised displeasure, readers will find much to consider, recollect and reminisce on in Gray’s fifty themes. And what makes this book all the more interesting is the question of how it will age, that’s to say, just how will football look in five or ten years. Will black boots have made a comeback – will black be the new, er, black? Will loan moves return to being something of a rarity? Will goalkeepers decide to once again wear hats? And will players stick around at clubs for more than five minutes? Or will there be new lost wonders? Perhaps VAR – or maybe that’s just wishful thinking. But whatever the future, Daniel Gray has once more hit on modern football’s zeitgeist and captured for fans, regardless of their age or history, the quirks of football’s recent past in his truly accessible and engaging style.

Jade Craddock

(Bloomsbury Sport. October 2018. Hardback 160 pages)


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Book Review: Extra Time – 50 Further Delights of Modern Football by Daniel Gray

Having recently rattled through Daniel Gray’s Saturday, 3PM and thoroughly enjoyed it, I immediately purchased a copy of his follow-up Extra Time – 50 Further Delights of Modern Football, and it didn’t disappoint.

In Saturday 3PM, Gray selected fifty of the weird and wonderful joys of the beautiful game, and in Extra Time, he details fifty more. This time, he takes in everything from soft-spot teams, to people patting police horses to cup draws and, my personal favourite, having noted its absence in Saturday 3PM, the referee falling over – it shouldn’t be funny, we’re all grown-ups, but it absolutely is. And again he does so in short missives that are perfectly resonant for football fans, but with a literary style and panache that is something to marvel at. There is something genuinely magical about his writing that makes it more than just words on a page; they burst with such precision and detail, such energy and zeal, that he absolutely brings the moments he describes to life, like a painter with words. Readers may think I’m getting a bit carried away, and perhaps I am, but I challenge you to read Gray’s writing and not to find it evocative. And something that I don’t think I’ve ever said about a sports book before – but his use of metaphor and simile is the stuff of English teachers’ dreams. In fact, any English teachers wanting to help students get their heads’ around these seemingly obscure techniques when trying to pick apart inaccessible Romantic or Renaissance poetry may find greater success in delivering one of Gray’s chapters to their pupils and using that as their reference point. His writing does, after all, have a poetry of its own, but one that is universally relatable and transparent – unlike much of the poetry getting thrown at kids in school. To my mind, Gray’s writing is honestly the pinnacle of football writing – there are, of course, different styles and different requirements, but for me, this is football writing at its very best.

Aside from the technical merits of the book, which I think I’ve just about covered, there is the content itself – the fifty delights that Gray writes about, and given that his first book covered fifty such themes, conjuring a further fifty is an achievement in itself. Some of my personal favourites, aside from, yes, the referee falling over, include indirect free-kicks in the box, not being able to sleep after a night match, jeering disallowed goals, clearing the ball off the line, goalkeepers going forward and the roar after a minute’s silence – all of which Gray perfectly captures and manages to conjure for readers who, most likely, haven’t experienced these joys first-hand in over a year now. The chapter on ‘going with my daughter’ was particularly touching, but also especially relatable, and as someone at the other end of the age spectrum, I can assure Gray that the experience gets better – as, later, daughters discuss tactics with their dads, decipher some dodgy chants, pay for a half-time pie and pint and badmouth the referee with the best of them – OK, well, maybe not that last point (or perhaps the penultimate point), but there is much still to look forward to.

Naturally, some of the inclusions are more relevant and relatable than others, and I didn’t connect as much with a couple in this book, but I’m sure every reader will have their own associations and memories stirred by the variety of Gray’s offerings. To my mind, though, there are still plenty of delights remaining, so perhaps we can look forward to a third book? And for inclusion, I will put forward the following: goal celebrations – the slick and the not-so-slick; the choreographed routines and backflips or the misjudged knee slide that ends up causing an injury. But, in truth, whatever Gray writes next – another fifty delights, a separate football book, a shopping list – I will happily dive in (if he fancies doing the government daily briefings, too, I wouldn’t object). And if any programme editors are looking to set the bar for next season, Gray’s writing is the sort that will elevate any publication to new heights, although I’m sure he has plenty to keep him going. Similarly, reading this book did make me think how nice an anthology of this sort would be, with a variety of the best writers around – Nick Hornby et al – extolling the virtues of football, and at a time when lower league/non-league clubs are struggling so much something like that could help to raise much-needed funds. But back to Daniel Gray and Extra Time and I can’t recommend this author enough. I’d advise starting with Saturday 3PM, before reading Extra Time, but either way Gray is a writer that deserves a worldwide audience – and perhaps inclusion on the school syllabus!

Jade Craddock


(Bloomsbury Sport. October 2020. Hardback 176 pages)



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