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Book review: Football In Its Own Words by Ray Gent

  • by JONATHAN COATES
 

WE all think that we know a fair bit about football. But did you know, for instance, that the winners of the first-ever World Cup were not Uruguay but West Auckland?

Or that church elders in Llanfair PG on Anglesey once buried two footballs in the graveyard with accompanying stone, in protest at the effect the game was supposedly having on society?

Ray Gent, a native of St Helens, also charts the tale of Lily Parr, who hails from the Lancashire town, in his new book, Football In Its Own Words. Parr played for Dick, Kerr Ladies, one of the many women’s teams founded during the First World War, and scored over 1,000 goals in an astonishing career.

It may have passed under the radar during the recent furore created by Tam Cowan’s controversial comments about women’s football that, when Dick, Kerr Ladies played St Helens at Goodison Park on Boxing Day, 1920, there were 53,000 spectators in the ground and many more thousands locked out.

Throughout most of Gent’s potted history of football, the narrator is football itself. Or, as the author describes it, the “spirit” of football.

This contrived voice talks proudly about the game’s countless achievements and poignantly about its many tragedies. Gent had already written in this format when he produced Rugby League In Its Own Words, which he admits was a slightly less cumbersome task than this pick‘n’mix encyclopedia of the round-ball game.

The author has done some extensive research, despite finding most of the institutions he contacted for help to be singularly unhelpful, and because so many Scots had a bearing on the genesis and the subsequent explosion of football into the most popular game in the world, numerous passages will be of parochial interest to Scottish readers.

That focus extends all the way from the 19th century and Andrew Watson’s rise to the national captaincy – “It is unbelievable,” says Gent, “that a black man should have captained Scotland at that time, when you consider that England didn’t have a black captain until the 1990s” – to the modern-day madness of clubs going from dust to bust with a brief boom in between, epitomised by Gretna.

His retelling of the game’s formative stages suggest that it has always been a discordant environment. We hear of Queen’s Park complaining to the FA about refereeing bias towards Blackburn after their second FA Cup defeat to the same opposition. Dumbarton hired a private investigator to check on alleged financial irregularities at Hibernian after the Scottish Cup final of 1887. The extraordinarily prolific Dick, Kerr Ladies arrived in Canada on tour only to find that the FA, having snorted at their unsanctioned stardom, had asked the host association not to entertain them.

We are also told – not for the first time, admittedly – about “Fatty” Foulke and his 25-stone Wembley waddle, about war heroes such as Willie Angus, the only Scottish territorial soldier to receive the VC, and 18-year-old Margaret Ferguson, the only female victim of the 1971 Ibrox disaster. Gent steers clear of results and statistics wherever possible to make this treasure trove of tales thoroughly readable.

• Football In Its Own Words by Ray Gent – Available for download from Amazon priced £4.94.

 

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