Sunday, 3 May 2020

Provided You Don't Kiss Me

Ok, so I’m not just reading books about cricket. I’m pretty much going through everything Duncan Hamilton has written. It’s well worth it, even though I’ve only ever really had a passing interest in football, and for twenty years of his writing life Hamilton was the football correspondent of the Nottingham Evening Post. At times I’ve actually detested the so-called ‘beautiful game’. It probably stems from growing up in Hull but ‘supporting’ (if my lukewarm attention to any club could be so dignified) Derby County. Everyone else supported with Hull City (understandable) or Leeds United. It was the early seventies and I’d been taken to Hammonds to buy my first football kit. I was never going to be allowed free choice. My mother was from Derby and my dad was from Derby-on-sea, or Skegness as it’s otherwise known. So a Derby Country kit it was.

I was happy enough in the dark navy shorts and white top of The Rams. Derby County were the only team I'd ever seen play (albeit the reserves) taken by my grandad to a midweek game at the Baseball Ground. I thought it'd be fine turning up to primary school PE like that. After all, it almost looked the the England kit.

I didn't, and still don't, understand such things. Thirty years later I was making the same mistake at a party in Liverpool, admitting I'd be supporting Man U in a forthcoming European fixture 'as they're the only British team left in the competition.' Silence. I got my coat.

Anyway, while I still don't really understand football, I do understand (and admire) great writing. Add a great subject (and my early association with Brian Clough and Derby County left an indelible impression) and you've got, for me, a winning formula. Clough, too, was the ideal manager for a non-footballer. He was entertaining, a real larger-than-life character and his style of soccer was entertaining too. But Clough was certainly a complex character; I watched his Saturday night appearances on Parkinson, knew he was a friend of my hero Geoffrey Boycott, another complex personality if ever there was one. Other than that I didn't know the first thing about him. I lost the token interest I ever had in football at around the time he was winning trophies again with Notts Forest and that was that. I read the obituaries when he died.

And then, years later, read The Damned United. And now I've read this, a book about the man, a book that spans his entire career, player and manager, and a book that acts as a wonderfully lyrical tribute to both the manager and the football he inspired. Duncan Hamilton doesn't shy away from the hero's feet of clay; but he does so sympathetically, with an understanding that says as much about the subject of this book as its author. And then there's Hamilton's prose, at times rising to the heights of his acknowledged sports reporter heroes, inspired by the heroic heights scaled by the man, Clough. And his assistant, Peter Taylor. At one point Hamilton makes reference to Boswell's relationship to Dr Johnson in attempting to give Taylor his dues in the matter. But if anyone here is Boswell to Clough's Johnson, it's Duncan Hamilton himself. The book is magisterial, a worthy tribute to a man whose name still inspires a nine-year-old's defensive loyalty, nearly fifty years later!

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