Book Review: Soap stars and burst bubbles: A season of Yorkshire football by Steven Penny

This book from Steven Penny was born out of his record of matches he attended during the 2002/03 season, documented on his website and which focuses on the game below the top four professional leagues in England. The book produced at the time proved popular but then went out of print, so prompted by repeated requests since, it was republished in February 2021.

Structure wise the book follows a timeline from August 2002 through to May 2003, and within each month, each game attended is afforded its own chapter. Given this format, it would be all too easy to fall into the trap of this being another book which just provides match reports, team line-ups, scorers etc. Penny’s great advantage that as a journalist he provides an interest story within each game, so that readers get interviews with players, managers, club officials and fans, which gives a wider perspective on the clubs featured, the realities of football at this level and some interesting tales indeed.

One such gives rise to part of the title of the book, with Helen Worth (soap star, Gail from Coronation Street), the Honorary President of the Ossett Albion club back in 2002/03 featured in the opening chapter. Another features a Goole supporter who was banned from attending matches at their Victoria Pleasure Grounds venue, but still bought a season-ticket!

The book very much focuses on life in non-league with trips to games within the Northern Counties East League dominating, however, this is supplemented by games featuring Yorkshire clubs, in the Northern Premier League, Humber Premier League, Northern League, and Central Midland League, as well as County Cups and the FA Vase and FA Cup. There are a handful of trips to watch games in the top four divisions, but in the main are not experiences that Penny enjoys, and his love for the non-league game which affords him his living as a journalist is evident.

Penny had intended that there would be a follow-up, in which he revisited and updated events at the various clubs he had taken in back in that 2002/03 campaign, however the global pandemic has had other ideas. Instead, his intentions are that a second volume will be produced once football at all steps of the National League System returns, with visits to completely different clubs to those featured in Soap stars and burst bubbles, and further down the line a third book, re-visiting and updating clubs’ stories from the first two volumes.

Reviewing this republished version, eighteen years after its first publication, it is evident that any follow-up will have many tales to tell and be able to reflect on much that has changed. For instance, there are clubs featured from 2002/03 that are no longer with us, even a new club in the form of Ossett United, from the merging of Albion and Town, and others that have either plummeted through the divisions or have equally soared to new heights. Fingers crossed that 2021/22 will see an uninterrupted return of football allowing Penny to tell the stories of those changes and bring fans once again more entertaining tales of his travels.

(Victor Publishing. February 2021. Paperback 267 pages)


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Book Review: Far from the massive crowds by Mark Cowan

The ‘diary of a season’ has become a popular genre within the football writing fraternity and therefore new additions have to offer something different for any potential reader to take a chance with it.

In the case of Far from the massive crowds by Mark Cowan, the title offers some clue to the unashamed tongue-in-cheek puns that follow in this Kindle book and provided this reader with some eye-rolling and laugh old loud moments.

However, this isn’t to take away from Cowan’s well observed look at his local team Guisborough Town and their 2010/11 campaign in Division Two of the Northern League, a league which was founded in 1889, and can lay claim to being the second-oldest football league in the world still in existence after the English Football League.

The world of non-league is a very different one from the professional game and the author provides a well-drawn picture of the realities of the game at this level and the ‘characters’ that inhabit this world.

This was, despite it being a common theme and standard diary format, an ideal Kindle read whilst on holiday. Since returning home though, the desire has been to find out more on what has happened to the club, some of the central figures and other teams in the Northern League.

SPOILER ALERT – the book follows the 2010/11 season, which ultimately saw Guisborough Town, nicknamed The Priorymen, get promoted after finishing second to claim their place in Division One.

In the seasons since, the club has maintained its status in the top division of the Northern League with the following finishes, 2011/12 (16th), 2012/13 (11th), 2013/14 (4th), 2014/15 (3rd), 2015/16 (3rd), 2016/17 (20th), 2017/18 (15th) and 2018/19 (15th). The club did finish in the relegation places in 2016/17, when a 3 point deduction for an ineligible player looked to have condemned The Priorymen to life back in Division Two. They were saved however after a protracted appeal with The FA, who had initially ruled that the Northern League should proceed in 2017/18  with 21 clubs rather than 22, after the resignation mid-season of Norton & Stockton Ancients and the promotion of South Shields to the Northern Premier League (NPL).

Whilst on the subject of the NPL, one of their club sides, Whitby Town were also to feature in the careers of two of Guisborough’s influential figures in the 2010/11 season. Club captain and leading goal-scorer that campaign, David Onions (nicknamed DO by the Guisborough faithful), left for The Seasiders in March 2012. Interestingly though, DO has come full circle, with him currently back with The Priorymen as Assistant Manager.

Guisborough’s manager in that 2010/11 promotion winning season was Chris Hardy who left the King George V Ground and was appointed manager of Whitby Town in December 2015, where he remains to this day.

Finally, a story which shows how perilous life can be lower down the football pyramid. In the book during the 2010/11 season, Cowan details how Gillford Park had struggled to get games played at home in the first half of the season, due to being locked out following a dispute with the landlord of the ground. The following season the club though was promoted to Division One after finishing runners-up. In 2012 there was a name change to Celtic Nation after major sponsorship by a Scottish millionaire. However, there was to be no fairytale ending as in 2014/15 after the club finished 21st in Division One they were disbanded.

Far from the massive crowds is a very readable introduction for those familiar and unfamiliar with football below the pro-game and indeed the lower reaches of the national league system. It’s worth a go, as is any visit to your local non-league club. Go on, you might just like it.

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