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.


Review: Obrigado – A Futebol Epic by David Kilpatrick

If you wanted to look back on the events of the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil you might check out the internet, look at some video highlights, read some articles on-line or maybe lookup some of the books written about the tournament.

How many of you though would have thought of poetry as a source of reflecting on the world’s biggest sporting spectacle? Presumably not many. However, that it exactly what David Kilpatrick has done in Obrigado – A Futebol Epic.

As a form poetry allows the writer a great deal of freedom, so for instance some examples have a strict rhythm and meter, whilst others are more abstract in structure. However, unlike longer forms of writing, such as novels, poetry is generally smaller and demands that words have to work harder and therefore have a greater intensity in order to impart their meaning and imagery.

Kilpatrick details this collection as, “64 games (total played in the tournament), 32 teams (total participating in the tournament), 30 days (duration of the tournament), 65 poems (a poem for each game played plus an introductory poem), 1 epic”.

The interesting term to note in Kilpatrick’s summary is “epic”, in that the definition of the term as classic or grand, could be applied to the tournament as a whole. However, there can also be another interpretation in that it refers to Kilpatrick’s collection as a homage to Greek epic poetry.

Indeed this idea is reinforced within the opening poem “I. Futebologia: Towards a poetics of sport”. Here Kilpatrick presents a poem which references the Roman poet Martial, the Greek writer Pausanias and in deference to Aristotle’s elements of poetry, contains the line:

Muthos, ethos, dianoia, lexis, melos, opsis

The poems that follow are an offering to the football gods, a thank you (obrigado in Portuguese) for the games, its players and the tournament as a whole. Within each one the key incidents and results are referred to in a creative manner, but Kilpatrick is also not afraid to express his opinions with in particular hosts Brazil and its players coming in for his displeasure.

Within “II. Brazil v Croatia”, Brazilian golden boy Neymar is dubbed “The Hyped One”, whilst fellow forward Fred is chastised for a dive in the following lines:

And then one ugly moment

Halts beauty’s heritage

The cynical, the crass, the dishonest

A dive, a disgrace, as Fred flops

Brazil’s ignominy is completed by Kilpatrick’s damning words following their 7-1 defeat to Germany in “LXII. Brazil v Germany”:

The gods of futebol exact bitter revenge

For Brasil’s betrayal of jogo bonito

As a review of the World Cup it is certainly different, but like all good poetry makes you want to go back and read it again so that all the nuances of the words can be explored.

Brazil 2014 will be remembered as a great World Cup and this collection of poems should please the football gods too.


Category: Reviews | LEAVE A COMMENT

Book Review: The Arsenal…and Other Poems by Mark Hamilton

Football and poetry are not usually comfortable bedfellows and other than Dannie Abse’s heartfelt poem about his beloved Cardiff City, The Game, it is difficult to recall any serious treatment of our national sport.

Of course in times of high emotion, successes and tragedies, people send poetry to the local papers, but it tends to be trite, or doggerel along the lines of, We play in red, they play in blue. They scored one, we scored two. After initial trepidation, The Arsenal…and Other Poems, however, proved to be far better and the author Mark Hamilton handles well the thoughts and feelings of the typical fan, yet also has plenty to interest the lover of poetry.

Appropriately for the clichéd game of two halves, the collection deals in the first section with Arsenal – a group of fourteen poems meant to represent the team plus three subs. The titles of these appears odd though as Arsenal VI would only have resonance for classics scholars or Romans. The second section of the Other Poems is more wide-ranging and it is fair to say more poetic and varied.

The Arsenal section is very personal dealing chronologically with successes and failures, although it is easy for any genuine football supporter to identify with the elation and despair that following a club causes. In his introduction the author admits that defeat has prompted more poems and in the section I make the record W3 D2 L10 (Arsenal VII details two defeats), which does seem to confirm the view that happiness writes white.

Centrally he handles honestly the ambivalence of a fan switching from the team, beautifully described as being, forged like artists weightless moments of pure quick grace, to fans baying, come on you fucking wankers. We’ve all been there.

On a deeper level, Hamilton cannot decide whether supporting a team is a proxy for your life, or we make our own sun, our own rain. Ultimately he is unable to decide – which probably mirrors what most fans feel – as does the eternal fundamental question of why do we put ourselves through it?

Being very subject specific, i.e.  Arsenal, no doubt this is where the main appeal will lie, but there is plenty for other fans to identify with. I must admit though that I found the, nine years without a trophy, lament a bit rich, for the poor souls only finished in the top 4 every year and subsequently the Champions League too during that period.

The second half, Other Poems, is more varied and Hamilton’s talents as a poet are shown to better effect. His use of metaphor is striking at times and one feels this is real poetry rather than a mere vehicle for him to articulate his feelings for his club.

Three of the poems deal with sport and the one on snooker provides an excellent range of comparisons through such phrases as, field marshals of the baize, all of which pay tribute to the players’ skill.

In Let’s play darts! Hamilton realises the artificiality of the game, but also appreciates the skill culminating in the powerful line, so comedy explodes itself into meaning and pantomime players become great.

The final clutch of poems concern topics traditional to poetry such as the everyday beauty of the world and our relationship to it, dealing sensitively with a simple delight in nature.

My favourite is Bishop’s Stortford, Herts, whose football team remarkably had to play in Conference North for two seasons against the likes of Barrow, Harrogate and Guiseley – a lot of travelling there then.

This collection is certainly a different take on the usual football offering. Indeed the writer is a skilful poet who shows, especially in the second part, a love of language and an eye for detail which I found enjoyable.

The obvious appeal is to an Arsenal fan, but if other readers can show some tolerance there is plenty to be enjoyed. There is a saying that, intelligent writers need intelligent readers, and in terms of sales it will be interesting to see how many worthy Gooners there are out there.

Final score: 1-0 to the Ars-en-al


Ken Gambles



Category: Reviews | LEAVE A COMMENT