The blurb on the back of a book is the opportunity to summarise the plot and lure in potential readers, letting them know what to expect. For George F. Brown’s debut novel, there were three phrases from that information that leapt out.
One Game at a Time is a love letter to the lower sometimes forgotten, tiers of the English football pyramid.
Gifford [the Bucknall manager] discovers that management is not just about what happens on the pitch and has to deal with the darker side of the game.
George [F. Brown] has created a narrative that celebrates the tactics and spirit of the world’s most beloved sport.
And for this review these are the starting points to discuss.
First up, the book as, a love letter to the lower…tiers of the English football pyramid. The author has created a fictional team, Bucknall, playing in the National League, the top division of the non-league game, and from which clubs can progress to the ranks of the Football League. And whilst the opponents that appear within the book are ‘real’ clubs who have or are playing in the National League (aside from the other fictional team within the book, Trosley United), there is little else within the narrative that is really typical and indeed illustrates the reality of the lower tiers of the game. The National League is one dominated by full-time clubs, many with Football League experience with grounds and budgets to match and as such aren’t representative of the rest of the non-league pyramid. Indeed it is a league which sees and wants to align itself more with the Football League than the rest of the non-league pyramid.
Next, Gifforddiscovers that management is not just about what happens on the pitch and has to deal with the darker side of the game. Brown does indeed explore through a number of plotlines, genuine issues with the game at all levels, which includes racism and gambling, as well as the impact that a career in football can have on an individual’s personal and homelife.
And lastly in terms of the third highlighted points, George has created a narrative that celebrates the tactics and spirit of the world’s most beloved sport. The author certainly does this and displays a coach-like quality in the description of the training and match action as well as getting across the highs and lows of the beautiful game for owners, management and players alike.
What else can readers expect? Well, the main story focuses on the appointment of Gifford an ex-player of Bucknall, who with no experience of managing at senior level tries to change the fortunes of the club as it languishes at the bottom of the National League. Along the way he signs the talented but wayward and ageing forward in Tommy Pearce to resurrect both the players and Bucknall’s fortunes.
Not every game is detailed as the season progresses, instead certain fixtures are described all with an impact on the team and crucial to the plotlines.
At less than 200 pages this is not an overly long book or taxing read, and with 45 short chapters moves quickly through the season to its conclusion.
Football fiction or indeed, Sports fiction in general, is not an easy genre to get right. George F. Brown in this book demonstrates a passion for the game and an easy writing style, however, this reader was left with the feeling that the greatest stories and drama still come from the real-life football of the past, the present and indeed the future.
(Publisher: DB Publishing. September 2023. Paperback: 192 pages)
A country in lockdown – no more spectator sport, no more football.
When the situation eased in Germany, I tried getting my footie fix by watching the Bundesliga on TV but found it unbearable. I think it was the lack of crowd noise and probably because I don’t have any affiliation with a German side.
When the Premier League came back with added crowd noise I did find that better, and of course I had a greater interest through being a Chelsea supporter and the knowledge and familiarity that brings in terms of the Premier League. Given the blanket coverage by Sky, BBC etc. I also got the opportunity to see all of The Blues league games and the conclusion of their FA Cup involvement.
It proved to be an exciting end to the Premier League season especially with the tense run-in to see whether Chelsea would make a top four finish, which they finally did with help of the woeful form of Leicester City. The Blues also made it to the FA Cup final beating Manchester United in the Semi-Final at an empty Wembley Stadium. Obviously, I was sad about the final result against Arsenal, but also disappointed with the level of refereeing. Mateo Kovacic should never have had a second yellow for that challenge, and I would have loved to have seen a replay of Gunners ‘keeper Emiliano Martínez “handball” incident in the second-half but can’t find a replay of it anywhere!!
However, it all looks good for next season with Timo Werner and Hakim Ziyech already in the bag, and fingers crossed for Kai Havertz – we look stronger going forward. The club did well in blooding some youngsters through the season and it will be good to see this continue. I think Mason Mount will be a regular, Reece James has to unseat Dave at right back, but we have great cover there. Other youngsters I hope get more game time next season would be Billy Gilmour, Callum Hudson-Odoi, and Fikayo Tomori. But we need to shore up the defence, we need a left back – shame we sold Tariq Lamptey to Brighton last season but need a defensive option with experience. We also need a commanding centre half, Christensen, Zouma and Rudiger, are too similar, and I feel we need another JT (John Terry). I think Fikayo can be this player but is too young and inexperienced so needs to be brought through without affecting his confidence.
But what of last season and my Incredible Journey? What an adventure and a strange ending to boot. First of all the statistics, let’s get the boring bit out of the way:
28 matches attended, 22 new ones to add to my list of grounds (current and previous members of the Football League and FA Cup winners)
I mingled amongst 137,781 fans, the biggest being at Turf Moor for Chelsea’s victory over Burnley (20,975) and the smallest being 2 – myself and one of the players girlfriends, at the Clapham Rovers vs Ladzio cup game, the next smallest being 54 at Shelley. An overall average attendance of 4,921.
12 wins, 6 away wins and 10 draws. 55 goals (33 first half, 22 second half. 31 home goals and 24 away goals).
On the road I travelled 2,476 miles, slightly skewed by a trip to Edinburgh to see Hearts vs Stenhousemuir (as part of holiday) and a trip to London, but I did manage to squeeze three games into that trip. The Clapham game being Sunday football was free and I was treated to a few games from Paul, Frank and Nick – cheers lads, but in total I spent £415.50 for my tickets, I would say extremely good value’
Let’s start with the least favourite game. Lincoln City away at Blackpool. An awful journey, sheeting rain all the way there and all the way back, delays on the M62 for the usual unknown reason other than the volume of traffic. I arrived twenty minutes after kick-off, missed all the goals and Lincoln lost. There’s always going to be one of these games a season and to be fair I kept drier at this game than others I had attended – it’s grim up north!
The London weekend was definitely one of the highlights, not just the trip down to see my friends and family but the football aspect too. Two games on the Saturday – Brentford and AFC Wimbledon, and an absolute cracking time talking football and music with my mate Paul. We also got to see the developing new Brentford ground and on the Sunday I went to see the new stadium at Plough Lane. I followed this up watching Clapham Rovers in my old stomping ground in the Wimbledon/Southfields area. I had a great chat with their captain and manager Chris Kew, talking their plans for the coming years which (fingers crossed) might include a game against Charterhouse Old Boys, who of course are Old Carthusians FC winners of the FA Cup in 1880/81 – Rovers having already played against another Victorian FA Cup winning team, Wanderers FC in a charity game. On that Sunday I managed to get some cheeky photos of the team with me as their added guest. They invited me to the pub after the game, unfortunately I had other plans (a family meal) but wondered if perhaps they went to one of my old drinking haunts, The Pig and Whistle. I shall definitely be watching them again next time I am in London.
Favourite grounds visited. I have enjoyed every ground I have visited during my journey for a multitude of reasons but primarily from a historical perspective. There are two grounds I have seen evolve over a number of years, Chelsea’s home, Stamford Bridge from the late 1960s and Lincoln City’s Sincil Bank stadium, from the early 1970s. It has influenced my preference for authentic and historic grounds, so unsurprisingly my favourite grounds on this journey have an element of history attached to them. The trip to London saw me visit Griffin Park, unique due to having a pub on each of the four corners of the ground and has been the home of Brentford since 1904. It was a privilege to attend what turned out to be the penultimate home game in front of their fans. The visit to Moss Rose – who knows what future lies for Macclesfield Town – was also a highlight, attending a ground which has been their home since 1891. Probably my two favourites were Turf Moor where Burnley, founder members of the Football League, have played since 1883 and the Anchor Ground where AFC Darwen now ply their trade and where the original Darwen FC played from 1899, where the clubhouse draws upon their historic beginnings.
As we have seen through lockdown and the coverage of football on TV, the game is nothing without fans in the ground. Most games have gone to form as opposed to offering the smaller home side the advantage of having a crowd baying them on. Throughout this journey, the fans have been brilliant right from the small 50+ attendances at both the Shelley games I attended to my visit to Turf Moor. The Bolton Wanderers (another founder member but sadly no longer at Burnden Park – I think I shall add visits to former ground sites for future seasons) vs Coventry game had a fabulous atmosphere, I really felt part of the crowd and was jumping up and cheering Bolton on. The primary reason for my support of The Trotters on the day was due to Bolton’s dire financial situation and their decision to play a team with an average age of 19 who absolutely ran their socks off and received a standing ovation from both sets of fans at the end. The Stalybridge Celtic vs FC United of Manchester game at Bower Fold, where they have played since 1906, was a Charity Day and so which boosted the attendance. In addition, it was a local derby and ‘Staly’ were also at home to a side who had spent some time as tenants at the ground and have a good away following, so all contributing on the day to a crowd three times the average home gate. I would also say that this was probably the best game I watched over the journey bar one.
Of course it has to be Chelsea, but not just for Chelsea sake. Firstly, the company – one of my best friends who had stuck by me and helped me in my hour of greatest need and my gorgeous daughter. It was also a birthday treat from Frank and Michelle just before my birthday. Secondly, the history of the ground and the home team. Additionally, the seats were perfect, with a view just above pitch level and close to the action – it’s a very compact ground. It was to be the only Premier League game of the season I attended, although I think I have come to prefer lower league football, given that it is usually a much closer game and better matched quality wise than the higher leagues which are usually determined by money. However, at Turf Moor, the quality of the players on show, the athleticism and speed of the players was evident. It was a joy to marvel at the technical ability of the players and to have the opportunity to see a number of Chelsea’s new stars, and of course Pulisic stood out with his perfect hat trick. A game of six goals – Chelsea 4 – 0 up and cruising until their leaky 2019/20 defence managed to ship two late goals – an exciting game throughout. And lastly but not least, probably the best match programme of the journey.
So what of the season ahead? Well unsurprisingly, it all depends when they start letting fans into the grounds. I would attempt 51 games in 2020/21 but I can’t imagine at that stage that the season will start with fans, and I fear there is likely to be a second peak of the coronavirus or perhaps a mutation which will probably see us in lockdown again. Fingers crossed it does not hit over the winter during the periods of high influenza across the nation.
However, if/once fans are allowed to return, I think I will concentrate on adding to my collection of Football League games as well as local midweek games in the local leagues. I have plans to visit friends and family in London again, so clubs such as Leyton Orient, Millwall, and grounds like the Emirates Stadium, Tottenham Hotspur Stadium, London Stadium, new Plough Lane and Brentford Community Stadium, all are on the list and of course if Clapham Rovers are at home Sunday league football, I would make a return trip. I also plan to visit friends in Devon so possible destinations include Torquay United, Exeter City and Plymouth Argyle and if I plan properly I might be able to catch a game on the way down and back on both trips. I also have a cousin who lives near the Bescott Stadium (home of Walsall), so I can get the opportunity to visit some Midlands clubs too. I also have two good friends in the village where I live – one a Manchester United fan and the other a Leeds United fan and we are planning a trip to the Highlands to take in a game at Loch Ness and Fort William, no doubt we will be able to find a Warrior games around the same time.
For now though, we will just see what happens.
I’ll leave you with the list of games that comprised my Incredible Journey:
As you may have noticed much of my journey has been unaccompanied, with the exception of the Barnsley, Bolton Wanderers and Stockport County games all attended with a couple of friends both coincidentally called Sally, Glossop North End with Nick and of course the first game with Tianna. As an only child I was very happy with my own company and this has extended into adulthood. It means that going to games on my own is generally par for the course and it does provide an opportunity to speak to the locals and fellow football fans at the fixtures I attend if I choose to. All of that was about to change.
I had been posting my journey on my Facebook page and an old friend from work contacted me and asked if he could accompany me to a game and we agreed on a midweek trip to FC Halifax Town. Paul was to become a frequent companion on my journey and provide me with a huge amount of support and inspiration to achieve the 50 games target. This game in West Yorkshire was to ignite a great friendship in the coming New Year. I first met Paul at work, where we shared an office but worked in different departments and we’d often have a chat about football. I didn’t realise at the time, but we were both going through a pretty traumatic period in our lives, but I really enjoyed his company and our footballing chats. Paul left the Council to pursue a career in football, primarily journalism. We kept in touch as you do through social media and met up at the West Riding County Cup Final in April 2017, Tadcaster Albion versus Farsley, incidentally another trip with Nick too.
I’d had a breakdown in 2016, partially brought on by the death of my Dad in 2014, partially being within, what I was to find out later, was a toxic relationship followed by a four year bitter divorce and access proceedings, hence the games with Tianna at the start of this journey being extra special. I have suffered from depression, probably before, and since and have been on medication. I suffer swings of mood between highs and lows and I try to recognise and manage the lows and sometimes set myself ambitious challenges, such as this journey, to give myself a target to drive myself through those lows with something to look forward to that I enjoy. Along this journey I have experienced both and Paul has been a great help during these times. More of this in the articles to come.
Back to the game with FC Halifax Town hosting Chorley.
Halifax Town AFC was a former league club who in 2008 were dissolved with the phoenix club, FC Halifax Town placed into the Northern Premier League (NPL) Division One North in the 2009/10 season. The original club, nicknamed The Shaymen, were a founder member of the Third Division North in 1921 ten years after their formation and remained in the third and fourth tiers all of their years in the league before relegation to the Conference in 1993. They regained their league status for four years between 1998 and 2002 but suffered relegation back to the Conference and then went into administration at the end of the 2007/08 campaign. The ‘new’ club from 2009/10 worked its way through the NPL and have since 2017/18 been in the topflight of the non-league structure.
For this game, I met Paul in the Three Pigeons for a couple pre-match drinks and by the time we left it was absolutely throwing it down of rain. We walked down the hill to the stadium joking at the prospect of seeing a goalless draw on such a miserable night, having told Paul of my misfortune at the recent Blackpool fixture. The entrance to The Shay, is the new part to the stadium, with the site itself having been Halifax’s’ home since joining the league in 1921. The main stand itself is an impressive structure but is slightly odd in that one corner section has not been completed and has been that like for a number of years, a reminder of the clubs troubled financial past. We took up our seats fairly close to the half-way line but had a group of “Soccer YEAH!” boys sat behind us who talked incessantly through the game. They proved to be at times amusing and at others irritating.
Going into this game, Halifax sat at the top of the table, with Chorley in the lower reaches having had a poor start to the campaign. Therefore it was no surprise that the Magpies set off from the start with a back-five and were happy to allow The Shaymen plenty of possession. Ironically though it was Chorley who had the first real chance of the game after fifteen minutes, when a dangerous cross from Marcus Carver just eluded the Chorley forwards. This was followed moments later by a chance for Adam Blakeman, who despite being in a good position, fired well over the Halifax bar. What with the wind and rain and the resolute defending from Chorley, the home were struggling to make their possession count, but four minutes before the break, Liam McAlinden created a chance for himself, only to see his shot sail high and wide.
The second-half started where the first had left off with Halifax seeing plenty of the ball with half chances created for Michael Duckworth and McAlinden. Halifax manager Pete Wild tried to mix things up with substitutions on fifty-seven and sixty-nine minutes to get the breakthrough and it nearly worked with nineteen minutes remaining. Sub Jamie Allen played in Jerome Binnom-Williams, but his shot was straight at Chorley ‘keeper Matt Urwin. Into the last ten minutes, with Halifax still plugging away, substitute Cameron King had a shot blocked, which fell to fellow sub Allen, however his effort could only find the side netting. It was the last real chance and Chorley had earned a point with a resolute rear-guard action.
Paul had up and until that evening watched nineteen games and not seen a 0-0. The curse of ‘Blighton’ had struck and we laughed as we reflected on our pre-match predication. To cap it off it was still bucketing down as we left the ground and dashed for the car. Football you’ve got to love it!
Tuesday 08 October 2019
Vanarama National League
FC Halifax Town 0 Chorley 0
Venue: The Shay Stadium
FC Halifax Town – Johnson, Duckworth, Binnom-Williams, Clarke, Nolan(Sho-Silva 80’) , J King (C King, 57’), Staunton, McAlinden, Williams (Allen 69’), Cooper, Southwell
Following his previous football titles, The Bromley Boys, 32 Programmes and Home and Away, Dave Roberts brings us his latest offering, The Long, Long Road to Wembley. Once again at the heart of his book, is his beloved club, Bromley FC.
This time the inspiration for another excellent tale of the Lillywhites, is a framed picture of the Bromley skipper carried shoulder-high by his teammates, celebrating the 1948/49 FA Amateur Cup win at Wembley against Romford, which the young Roberts remembers adorning the tea-bar at Bromley in his early years supporting the Club. The image inspires in Roberts the desire to see his side repeat that journey and so begins the story as the sub-title of the book details, One man’s fifty-year journey towards his ultimate football dream.
The book is divided into two parts, the first (covering nine chapters) finds the author excitedly anticipating the 1968/69 FA Amateur Cup draw and takes readers through to 1979 and a visit to Wembley, at the Arena, rather than the twin-towers of the stadium, for a five-a-side competition involving a number of Isthmian league teams. During that time the FA Amateur Cup was ended in the 1973/74 season as the FA abolished the amateur status, with the FA Trophy beginning in 1969/70 and becoming the senior competition for non-league clubs. Whatever the title though of the tournament, Bromley never go near a return during that period to walking up Wembley Way.
One of the great strengths of Roberts writing is that it isn’t just tales of events on the pitch, and it brought a smile to the face to read of the author’s growing pains in the first part of the book. Readers are treated to Roberts in his Bryan Ferry phase, resplendent in white suit and smoking French cigarettes, Disque Bleu, from a black holder ivory, through to his punk transformation, black bin liner et al. with a tale of a near fatal experience with a three-wheeler, thrown in for good measure.
Part two covers the period from the end of the 1970s up to the 2017/18 season, as Roberts moves around the UK and even has spells abroad in New Zealand and United States, limiting his visits to Bromley’s home ground, Hayes Lane. Of the remaining eight chapters (and Epilogue), five are dedicated to the 2017/18 season, as Bromley, now a National League side, make another assault on reaching a Wembley Final.
Once again, the author in this book has captured what it is like to be a non-league fan, capturing the bond that exists at that level between its players, volunteers and die-hard fans. It also reminds us that as fans we should never give up on our dreams, and that despite all the ups and downs, our teams are in our blood.