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)


Category: Reviews | LEAVE A COMMENT