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Wednesday 23 February 2005
Book review

Dave Boyle looks at David Conn's latest insightful tome - signed copies on sale at the ground this Saturday.

The Beautiful Game ? Searching for the Soul of Football
David Conn, Yellow Jersey Press, 400pp, 12

David Conn is a writer many in the Trust movement will be familiar with through his columns in The Independent, covering the stories most papers and most writers deem to be irrelevant; the epic struggles against neglect, indifference, crippling debt and in some cases,

That pattern of covering stories most shied away from was set in his first book published in 1997, The Football Business It was perhaps the first to draw together the nascent strands of criticism of where the game was heading. Whilst many of the sentiments had been voiced before ? flotation on the stock exchange wasn?t working, but had made certain Directors very rich, that the creation of the Premier League was horribly misguided ? The Football Business argued the case as a whole and by interviewing the key protagonists and letting them tell the sorry tale in their own words.

Despite getting good coverage at the time of publication, with good reviews and a Panorama documentary made about it, it made its mark most as a sleeper hit, working it way around fans by word of mouth. David?s original analysis was considered radical and extreme at the time, coming as it did on the back of Euro96 and the second huge Sky Contract. It fed into the newly-formed Football Task Force and changed the nature of the debate around the game. Closer to home, it gave publicity to the work of Brian Lomax at Northampton Town Supporters? Trust and beyond that, helped get more than a few people decide that they had to do something for the good of the game who now do that good work through being active in their own Trusts.

The moral force of the argument in The Football Business was most clearly seen in the chapter on youth football in Manchester, as the contrast between Old Trafford awash with riches from Sky and the pitches many of its young players began their careers on fell into dangerous disrepair, with bottles, tree stumps and other hazards afflicting any latter-day Ryan Giggs who were unfortunate enough to have to play on them.

That moral outrage is still there in the follow-up The Beautiful Game ? searching for the Soul of Football, even if the tone is perhaps more measured. Years of disciplined story telling in the Independent have led to the prose being tight and focussed, flowing neatly. The argument is made with neat, incisive rapier-like thrusts, instead of the occasional hammer-blow that peppered The Football Business ? more Zorro than Thor.

Regular readers of The Independent will recognise the stories of York City, AFC Wimbledon and Bradford, but this book is in no way a rehash of old journalism, with new revelations. Taking up the theme of why the Premiership was formed, the proponents are interviewed and asked why they did it and what the benefits for the game would be. There?s more on the scandal of the Hillsborough inquiry into the deaths of the Liverpool fans, who though their deaths gave birth to the Whole New Ball Game? but who haven?t been given the dignity of a decent proper inquiry. Sheffield Wednesday are put under the microscope as the club at the centre of that tragedy and the club from where former Chairman Dave Richards rose to the Chairmanship of the Premier League, the Football Foundation and a representative on the FA Board.

There?s much to shock, annoy, infuriate and amaze, but despite the story having more than enough villains, spivs and small-time businessmen given national stages, Conn doesn?t allow depression to dominate. There are heroes too, from fan groups at York, The Steve Becks and Paul Rawnsleys at York, the Gordon Sorfletts at Bury and Kris Stewarts at AFC Wimbledon amongst many. Despite there being much to despoil the beautiful game, the occasional ugly reality doesn?t deter Conn from remaining optimistic about the game?s true roots, in the hearts of millions of ordinary people up and down the country who have been appallingly served by their leaders through the years. Lions led by donkeys, you might say.

Like Spider-Man and The Godfather, sequels can be better than the first one. An instant classic from a writer on top of his craft and his subject. It would much more than a superb present for anyone who is interested in knowing more about what goes on behind the scenes in the game and what can be done to change things. But more than that, recommend it, give it, lend it, to the sceptics in your trust; it could be the best recruiting agent you could have. Can there be an instant classic? If there can, this is surely it.