In the beginning, there is a field, a ball, some rudimentary goalposts, and some people who love to play football. By starting here, and drawing a line all the way up to the Premier League, Jim Keoghan’s new book really can claim to be The Story of Our National Game, as the subtitle has it.
The publication is timely and important. For while much of the analysis and projection was clearly written before COVID-19 changed everything, this reminds us of why the game has such deep roots and such a hold on our collective emotions.
It’s not a sweeping social, economic and political take like David Goldblatt’s magnificent The Game of Our Lives. It’s a tightly focused examination of why and how people make football clubs work. That’s timely because we need to take a step back, breathe, and remind ourselves of why the game matters so much. Especially now.
Football is less important than other things, but its importance still matters. The sport, certainly at its upper levels, has at times during this current crisis been so tone-deaf, detached and arrogant that, alongside the self-importance and avarice that have been gnawing away at people’s commitment for years now, it’s increasingly common to hear people rejecting it altogether. Let them get on with it, goes the cry. Let the big clubs break away, let the billionaire plotters and assorted Big-Time Charlies bugger off and leave us with a purer version of our national game. This book is timely because it reminds us the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.
Keoghan digs deep to talk to the people who run the Sunday league and kids’ leagues that really do constitute the grassroots, taking us on a journey up through various levels of the amateur game and into the professional leagues. What shines through is the sheer time and dedication so many people put into running clubs and competitions that give people a chance to take part. For so many, there’s no glory, the point is just to give people a chance to do something they love. And there can be few more telling revelations than hearing that Trevor Brooking, the director of football development in England, thought grassroots football was youth academies.
Keoghan has packed the research in, talking in depth to people at all levels of the game and, as an able storyteller, stitches together the various examples of successes and failures at local league level throughout the country to provide a picture of a sport, teeming with energy, that is hard-wired into the roots of so many communities. In doing so, he makes the idea of ‘our national game’ more real, and he shows why the idea of the football pyramid – the notion that it is possible to start at the bottom and progress to the very top – is so valued.
To be clear, he’s not arguing that clubs such as St Francis Rangers of the Sussex County League, once dubbed ‘the worst team in England’ but now thriving as a pathway for young talent, are going to win the Premier League any time soon. But the point is that doesn’t matter. What matters is being part of the national game, even a small part at the fringes. Because it’s a collective endeavour. The feeling of being part of something bigger, of striving for something that thousands of other people you don’t know, but are aware of, are striving for.
Keoghan does not ignore the fault lines in the game, and the many stories of clubs in crisis underline once just how badly run so much of football is, and why a national governing body worth the name is needed. He also casts his net wider than many who write about the game, looking at clubs and leagues who exist to promote more than the traditional ideas of success. There’s also a look at what the author calls ‘Football 2.0’ – alternative forms of the game now developing, often linked heavily into online experience. I’ll confess that chapter, while fascinating, also prompted me to ask whether that particular set of developments was for me. But that probably shows my age.
I’ve talked about the book being timely. I say that because football is not exactly making friends at the moment, and because there’s more evidence of rage and even rejection of the game at elite level manifesting itself. This story of our national game reminds us of why we shouldn’t concede or reject any part of it, and why we should reassure that line that can still be drawn from a kid’s team on a windswept patch of mud all the way up to the citadels of the elite clubs. Football, as a wise man once said, is a simple game.
How to Run a Football Club by Jim Keoghan can be purchased here.