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Anthony Clavane: Football and paperbacks - part of the collective fantasy

Barry Hines's book A Kestrel For A Knave remains a much loved novel. (JPress).
Barry Hines's book A Kestrel For A Knave remains a much loved novel. (JPress).
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I know we shouldn’t even begin to think about Christmas until the first sighting of the John Lewis ad but there are, I have only just realised, a mere ten weeks to go.

So I have been thinking about which book I should send to Marcelo Bielsa. To the uninitiated, Bielsa is the godlike genius who currently manages Leeds United.

Ever since the Yorkshire Evening Post’s chief football writer, Phil Hay, spotted the great man with a DVD of Kes – at a pre-season friendly at Oxford seeing as you’re asking – I have been contemplating the perfect paperback for him.

To many of you reading this column, football and literature go together like Donald Trump and humility. Indeed, you might dismiss the very term “football literature” as an oxymoron. But this is Marcelo Bielsa we’re talking about. “The godfather of modern, intellectual football,” as Hay anointed him.

Apparently, the 63-year-old Argentine watched the classic film – one of the greatest British movies of all time – in order to immerse himself in Yorkshireness. I think he would benefit even more by reading the original Barry Hines novel. Or getting his personal translator to read it to him in a deadpan style whilst he sits impassively on an upturned bucket.

A Kestrel For A Knave, as the Bard of Barnsley Ian Mcmillan once told me, “is our defining myth. Our Moby Dick, our Great Expectations, our Great Gatsby, our Grapes of Wrath. It’s our creation myth and the tale we tell each other to remind ourselves that we are worth writing about, that our story is worth telling.”

Ian was talking about his beloved hometown but the book, although written 50 years ago, sums up better than any other the spirit of modern Yorkshire.

It is not, of course, about football. But Hines’s 20-page account of a football match is a thing of wonder, inspiring the famous scene in the movie where the bullying PE teacher, played by Brian Glover, comically assumes the role of a slightly-balding Bobby Charlton. It would have been Denis Law but that player’s shirt, as we all know, was in the wash.

There is a great deal of snobbery in some literary circles about this kind of writing. But, given the amount of passion, hubris and tragicomedy involved in the game, it is not surprising that some of our greatest scribes have come under football’s spell.

In King Lear, William Shakespeare has the Earl of Kent, the Vinnie Jones of the early 1600s, kicking Oswald and calling him a ‘base football player’. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle played in goal for Portsmouth Association Football Club. And Sir Walter Scott, who once reported on a Scottish match 
for the Edinburgh Journal, wrote: “Life is itself a game of football.”

As a young boy obsessed with the game, my life changed after reading that 20-page account in Hines’ novel. It was a gritty, beautifully-paced, hilarious portrayal of a match played on a windswept, muddy hill.

When teaching creative writing classes at the Arvon centre near Hebden Bridge I often take groups to the top of a nearby muddy hill, Slack Top, the setting for Ted Hughes’ astonishing poem Football at Slack. It’s really about the First World War and, as the students look around the valley, they imagine the pitch darkening into no-man’s land.

More recently, from Nick Hornby’s musings on obsessive male behaviour, modern romance and the Arsenal off-side trap in Fever Pitch to David Peace’s viscerally exhilarating account of Brian Clough’s 44 days at Leeds in The Damned Utd, this much-derided genre has shown how football, like film and popular music, is part of the collective fantasy.

Which brings me, rather shamelessly, to tomorrow’s star-studded literature event in Leeds. Having contributed a chapter, I will be joining other football writers to launch Tales From Elland Road, described by its editor Rick Broadbent as “a book of blood, sweat and fish guts”.

I really hope Bielsa turns up with his bucket.

It’s highly unlikely but, just on the off chance, I will bring along a copy of A Kestrel For A Knave, Yorkshire’s answer to Great Expectations. Which, given the start Leeds have made, seems most apt.