Book review: The A-Z of Football Hates

06/10/2014

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I was tempted to begin this review of The A-Z of Football Hates by Richard Foster (Amberley, 2014) by stating that books of alphabetical lists would come near to the top of my own inventory of “hates,” but I was quickly won over by the author’s introduction, particularly his description of the Chester fan, Steve, who hates watching home matches, an interesting – if slightly problematic – kind of cross for a football supporter to bear.

The abominations that have been chosen by Richard Foster, from an original long list of 87, are probably shared by the majority of fans: agents, corporate hospitality, diving, naming rights, (Mexican) waves, and xenophobia would all be on my personal list should I ever compile one. I would have included “banter,” though, which in my opinion is one of the worst aspects of the modern game of all. Of course, the whole point of a book like this is that there will be as much to disagree with as there is to confirm one’s own prejudices. That’s all part of the fun – and the book is fun. It’s written with a light touch that shrugs off some of its strengths, such as the quality of the writing and research. I learned quite a few things from reading it – from snippets about the early history of agents to the rather pleasing fact that the first footballer in the English game to wear tights was a Leicester City player in 1979.

It’s a book that seems intended, above all, to provoke debate and discussion and I’m pleased to say that I found much to disagree with in it, as I’m sure everyone else who reads it will. Although I can quite believe that players’ PR advisers might encourage them to flourish their children in front of the cameras for all kinds of dubious reasons, I don’t feel as cynical about children and football as the author does. I love to see footballers celebrating with their families when they’ve won trophies and I particularly like to see my own team parade their little ones around Portman Road at the end of the season. Foster finds it schmaltzy but I think that some footballers might actually like their own kids enough to want to share the pleasure of their best moments in football with them. On the other hand, I agree with him that FIFA’s insistence on players each holding hands with a mascot when walking on to the pitch for an international is execrable.

I’m not sure, either, about his description of his ideal club owner: “rich, anonymous and kind-hearted. Just imagine a wealthy philanthropist who was publicity shy… ” I have a particular figure in mind, of course, and I’m in no doubt that a club owner should not be able to hide from the people whose club he or she is supposed to be looking after. I suppose a book that is essentially against things doesn’t have to put the world to rights, but it would have been good if the piece about Ownership had made at least a passing reference to what fans are doing for themselves at clubs like Exeter, FCUM, AFC Wimbledon and Portsmouth.

He devotes an entire “hate” to John Westwood of Pompey and his bell, a decision with which I can wholeheartedly concur. If there’s ever a follow-up edition, I can also recommend that the person who used to play a musical air horn at Portman Road repetitively in the 1970s should receive similar recognition. That horn still blights Ipswich Town DVDs to this day.

There are some contradictions. The author admits “I cried again twenty years on from those first tears” when England were knocked out of the world cup in 1990, despite claiming “Crying” and open displays of masculine emotion to be one of his pet hates. Perhaps – like the Player Queen in Hamlet – Richard Foster protests too much. In fact, I suspect him of really enjoying many of the things he claims to hate. He is clearly enjoying himself far too much in the section on Haircuts – and indeed, which football fan has not taken pleasure in the maniacally coiffeured player? Although I was sad not to find either of my personal favourites, Sue Smith and Taribo West, in the book there are plenty of other examples.

I was afraid that this book might be a football version of Grumpy Old Men but it would be better described by the popular Twitter hashtag: “Against Modern Football.” Most of the things that Richard Foster hates have come into the game in the post-Sky TV era. Television coverage, enormous advertising revenue and vast wealth have altered the game, and in turn have created huge distinctions between clubs with the Premier League having the lion’s share of the spoils in this country. These are the things that are at the root of almost all of the “hates,” whether they are TV directors homing in on the faces of crying fans or goal celebrations designed especially for the cameras.

A pleasing aspect of the book is the contributions of both supporters and former footballers. I particularly enjoyed Pat Nevin, who with typical originality and intelligence decided that what he hates the most is hatred. I think most people would agree. For all the controversy about things like the music played over stadia PA systems or “French football shorts,” this is the worst thing about football and changing things for the better is – unlike most of the other execrations listed in the book – in the hands of the fans themselves. The section on Qatar 2022 is excellent and it conveys some important issues about FIFA’s hypocrisy in the face of human rights abuses. Human rights and global corporatism may not fit all that well into a book that is essentially about mocking the wearing of yellow boots or “plastic fans” but without the serious issues, it would merely be enjoyably trivial. It’s more than that and all the better for it.

The author concludes by saying that it hopes it will enable its readers to release some “pent-up emotions.” I’m not sure about that. For me, watching a football match itself is the most cathartic thing of all. However, if The A-Z of Football Hates was intended to be entertaining and thought-provoking, it has certainly succeeded very well.

Susan Gardiner

 

 

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Warren United

22/04/2014

In which our admirably-but-frankly-rather-surprisingly-uncorrupted-by-vast-amounts-of-free-beer-man-on-the-red-carpet, Gavin Barber, reviews ITV’s new animated football comedy, Warren United.

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 I don’t know if “attend a West End premiere as an invited guest and get plied with free booze” is on any “things to do before you’re 40” bucket lists, but if it is then I managed it with hours to spare. My last few hours as a 39-year-old were spent, courtesy of the marvellous Socrates football bloggers’ collective and Baby Cow Productions, at the Prince Charles Cinema in Leicester Square, for a preview screening of a new ITV4 show called Warren United. And some free booze.

Such an event wouldn’t be cause for comment in the life of Mark Kermode or Grace Dent, but for someone whose previous nearest brush with media glamour had been an awkward conversation with Timmy Mallett at an Oxford United testimonial dinner in 1998, the idea that someone might care sufficiently about what the likes of me would think of their new TV show that they were prepared to shove Budweiser in my face for as long as I could stand up caused more than a frisson of excitement. In fact, when I arrived in Leicester Square I was greeted by a fleet of blacked-out limos, a screaming crowd and a red carpet, though it turned out they were for the Spider-Man 2 premiere at the nearby Odeon. Bet our seats were more comfortable though. I find those Odeon seats a bit scratchy.

Anyway, if the producers thought that by schmoozing the egos of easily-flattered geeks like me, they might get themselves some attention in the football blogosphere, they were of course absolutely right. So here goes with a review. Warren United is a perfectly decent and promising new animated sitcom. It has an impressive cast of voice performers, including Darren Boyd, Nitan Ganatra, Morgana Robinson and Johnny Vegas, and a fine comedic pedigree (Steve Coogan’s long-time collaborator Henry Normal is co-producer). It shows signs that it can survive the inevitable Simpsons comparisons to carve out its own niche in the annals of British TV comedy [note to self – can annals have niches? Check with Mark Kermode]. It has several good bits. On the basis of the preview screening, almost none of those good bits are about football.

The premise of Warren United is that the eponymous central character, voiced by Darren Boyd, is a well-meaning but hapless individual whose childlike self-centeredness leads him into trouble and brings frustration to his family and colleagues. This is all fine. The centre of Warren’s universe is his football team, Brainsford United. Of all Warren’s Achilles heels [note to self – can you have more than one Achilles heel? Check with one of the kids’ teachers], devotion to Brainsford is his most vulnerable. He neglects his family, his job and his health in pursuit of this addiction. Scrapes ensue. You get the picture.

Unfortunately, it’s the depiction of Warren as a man obsessed with football above all else that is the weakest element of the show. Particularly unfortunate because it’s being marketed as a football programme. The first episode is being shown immediately after a Champions League game on ITV, in the hope that viewers will switch straight over to ITV4 to see it. They may well do so, and they’ll be rewarded with some decent comedy – but not much in the way of football-related observation.

The opening episode, “July”, sees Warren reach the end of a season and determine that it’s his last as a Brainsford fan. He gives up his season ticket and devotes himself to healthier pursuits. He sees a psychiatrist. He attempts DIY. He spends time with his children. All of these are, of course, spectacularly (and amusingly) unsuccessful. You can guess where the story ends up. It’s Warren’s time away from football that provides the laughs.

The first and third episodes of the series are penned by Simon Nye. Nye is best known as the writer of Men Behaving Badly, a show about laddish wackiness which very sensibly kept football firmly out of its central characters’ world, despite what must have been strong temptation to include it. Men Behaving Badly had its good and its bad points, but when it worked it worked because it struck the right balance between outrage and pity at the actions of its knowingly inadequate central characters. When Warren United succeeds, it does so on the same basis, i.e. a well-observed comedy about a deeply flawed middle-aged man. It’s when the show tries to be hilarious about being a football fan that things become a bit one-dimensional.

Warren United has an admirably quirky ensemble of characters, including Warren’s co-worker Dillip (who’s bemused by football and tries to get Warren into cricket), his sex-obsessed mother and her smooth-talking boyfriend, and some talking police horses. Talking police horses might not sound funny, but they are funny in this. Certainly the funniest talking police horses I can recall seeing in a British animated sitcom. [Note to self- are there any other sitcoms with talking police horses? Google it later].

Context is everything. If Warren United was being presented as a new sitcom which happened to have a football strand to it, there would be no problems. It’s the fact that it’s being presented as a football programme – through its marketing and scheduling – which gets things off on the wrong foot. As a new piece of British animation, it’s fine – a nice combination of characters, scripts and sight gags. As something which purports to portray something that a football fan might find self-referentially amusing, it doesn’t quite work.

You can see why it’s tempting to present a programme which has football in it as a “football programme”. The game has blanket media coverage and a prominent place in the consciousness of the nation. Here’s the thing though: you can’t possibly make being a football fan funnier than it actually is. From the bloke behind you yelling incomprehensible abuse at the opposing full-back, to a striker missing an open goal, to a linesman falling over – none of these things can possibly be as funny in fiction as they are in reality. As it establishes itself, Warren United may well succeed as a sitcom, and I hope it does. The richer comedy in fiction will come from the characters and the scripts – the richer comedy in football comes from real life.

[Note to self – should probably email the producers and thank them for the free beer].

 

Warren United starts on 22nd April at 10pm on ITV4.