Ian McMillan: Why the best sports writing is matchless prose

The football season rolls towards its climax and the cricket season is about to start; some people slice their year into the dull old seasons, spring, summer, autumn and winter or The Light One, The Warm One, The Misty One and The Dark One as they're sometimes called, but give me a year built around sporting seasons and I'll be happy.

Ian McMillan
Ian McMillan

As the months glide by I realise that I can’t be at a cricket match or a football game every hour of every day so I have to make do with lolling on the settee and reading about sport. There’s a commonly-held belief that cricket has better writers than football does, although I’d have to disagree. I do enjoy cricket writing, like that classic poem by Henry Newbolt Vitai Lampada: “There’s a breathless hush in the Close tonight,/Ten to make and the match to win-/A bumping pitch and a blinding light/an hour to play and the last man in…” but over the years I’ve come to love football writing, as exemplified by Barry Hines’s early novel The Blinder, about footballing prodigy Lennie Hawk who has to make a choice between sport and academic study, in almost the same way that Hines, who could have been a professional footballer, did. The Blinder isn’t as well-known as some of Hines’s other works, but it deserves greater attention.

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Perhaps, though, the novel isn’t the right vehicle for the excitement and rush of football and much of the best writing about The Beautiful Game is in the shorter forms. The Yorkshire Post’s sports writers excel in pounding out fantastic prose to a tight deadline and I for one mourn the demise of the Sporting Pinks and Green ‘Uns that used to be, amazingly, our only way of finding out the scores of the matches we hadn’t been at, and sometimes our only way of finding out who scored the goals at the matches we had been at, if we’d looked away at the vital moment. There was poetry of a rough and ready kind in those match reports. For a while, before the internet took over the world, this kind of writing flourished in an even more rough and ready form in the fanzine culture. There are fewer fanzines now, but some still thrive: as a Barnsley fan I’m an avid reader of our elegantly-named and scurrilous West Stand Bogs, and there are fanzines that look at the whole of football, like The Sporting Pink (a title harking back to the earlier era mentioned, er, earlier) and When Saturday Comes.

Maybe, though, cricket writing has the edge. I must dig out a book I endlessly read and reread as a boy: Play Up Barnley (not Barnsley, note, although that’s what I thought the title was when I first got the book as a Sunday School prize). It’s a classic cricket tale by forgotten author Leighton Houghton. I bet there’s even ten to play and the match to win at some point. I’m going to the book box. I may be some time.