A handsome and charming book: 'The Game' vividly celebrates British soccer's glorious tradition

Sure, the world's game has been played on these shores going back to the 19th century, and there's a trove of tales, too many untold, guiding our evolution from the ethnic enclaves that housed the game not so long ago to the post-1994 reality of biggish money (sort of), bigger stars (a few of them), actual international attention (for sure), and -- maybe best of all -- a billowing fan culture surrounding the national teams and a growing legion of clubs, large and small.

We've got it going on in the USA (Canada, too), certainly in relation to our past(s), and possess a savviness perhaps beyond what the world perceives. We follow the same action as everyone else (EPL, Champions League, World Cup and Euros and so forth), plus a few things (MLS, Liga MX, the women's game) many elsewhere miss. But let's be honest: We're adolescents among adults within this soccer world.

There's a glorious tradition we've only logged into recently, a history that transpired while our attention -- those ethnic enclaves aside -- was strictly on our own games. There's so much out there to see, to learn, and that's one of the foundations of revered photographer Stuart Roy Clarke's handsome and utterly charming tome "The Game" (Relegation Books, $50).

“In putting together this book, I asked myself of each page,” Clarke writes as a sort of preface to this update of last year's UK-published The Game Revisited. "'Will this make you smile in North America?'"

Indeed, this splendid, 264-page “coffee-table” book will, whether you're a British transplant from the terraces or a new fan unfamiliar with the ways of football on its native isle. Clarke is most interested in the cultural nuances within British soccer and the game's intrinsic role within the country's social life, and if his photographs -- full of detail and wit -- are the lure, the conversational text that accompanies them is a real treat.

Clarke and fellow Watford fan John Williams, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Leicester who has written extensively about the English game, chat passionately, knowledgeably and critically about all things soccer while tracing its evolution from primitive mob games such as Workington's legendary “Uppies-Downies” clash -- a contest with no rules, or at least none until one team tried to drive away with the ball a few years ago -- to the global, multi-billion dollar entertainment empire the astoundingly successful Premier League has grown into.

The world's attention is primarily on the EPL's biggest clubs, but Clarke and Williams, friends for three decades, emphasize the depth of the British game -- with a hearty nod to the rural game and village clubs -- the cultures surrounding the game, and, most vital, the fan experience as a supporter of one's local club.

They dissect the roles and responsibilities that accompany such loyalty, the spiritual connection to (often shoddy) home grounds, the rituals that go with all of it, and the intense importance of the derby, with a nod to the biggest -- in Dundee and Sheffield and a tiny space in the West of Scotland -- and how all of that reflects and defines individual and collective identities.

Williams is particularly adept at drawing sociological parallels, and Clarke's understanding of village life and the specific cultures within clubs -- and of how they often mirror the larger culture -- is most rewarding. The conversation is deceptively casual, like two really bright blokes talking over a pint or two, and the chapters build upon each other, weaving a tapestry as diverse as the 92 “league” clubs and thousands more playing beneath the top four divisions.

There's also talk of big names, of legendary managers, of owners who built the game (and some under whom it crumbled). Of the losses in the 1950s -- to the Yanks in Brazil and the blowouts against Hungary's “Magical Magyars” -- and how they spurred greater professionalism. Of 1966, of the colorful fanzine culture, of Herbert Chapman's innovations and of Brian Clough's wonderful Leeds United teams. Of the 1980s tragedies, the hooligan troubles, and, for good and/or ill, of the Premier League birth and explosion to kick off the big-money TV era that has taken clubs into gleaming, modern stadiums before audiences from around the globe.

Clarke's photos are interspersed with historical shots supporting the text in the first section of the book, and many of them are a joy -- a Burnt Ash FC team photo from the late 1950s features an adolescent David Bowie, and a Liverpool fan moons the camera as his buddies celebrate a Manchester United scandal -- but too many are played too small, robbing them of their power. This is a minor gripe, easily forgiven along the 153 pages that follow with his “Most Popular” and “Favorite” photographs.

Clarke notes that he wants his photos to share “the smells and the sounds of the crowd,” and his genius is that he finds deeper meaning, something more incisive, while doing so. There's the swarm of faces in Liverpool's Kop, with one young man smiling as he flips off the camera. Another Reds fan, a “mum” decked out in full kit, pushes a baby stroller along the sidewalk the day after the 2005 “Miracle in Istanbul.” A young boy peeks around a wall too high to see over to glimpse the action at Matlock Town. A woman pulling a small cart on a tiny trail walks past two men sitting on a fence with their dogs watching a game from behind a goal. That's just a start.

The Game by Stuart Roy Clarke with John Williams Relegation Books Hardcover, 264 pages, $50

1 comment about "A handsome and charming book: 'The Game' vividly celebrates British soccer's glorious tradition".
  1. Chris Morris, August 16, 2020 at 11:32 a.m.

    "Brian Clough's wonderful Leeds United teams."
    Scott, Don Revie called. Suggested you rent the film The Damned Unied.

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