Released at the tail end of 2014, polarising football historian David Goldblatt’s book The Game Of Our Lives, The Meaning And Making Of English Football was recognised as an all-time classic when it won the 2015 William Hill Sports Book of the Year award.
But just what was it about the process of researching writing which elevated it to such a prestigious level and made it stand out?
The Game Of Our Live was by no means a side project for Goldblatt, it’s a stunning, detailed and often controversial history of English football.
Unsurprisingly then, writing the book was no easy task, as delving into such a polarising topic as the rise of the Premier League in meant unearthing as many negatives as positives, attempting to understand how the juggernaut was created.
‘Am I on my game here?’
“When I was writing it, never did I think it would be up for an award,” says Goldblatt. “It was one of those books that while I was writing I really didn’t know if anyone would really understand what I was trying to write, or get enough out of it.
“I mean, the experience wasn’t the fear of the blank page, because I never get the blank page. I was just asking myself constantly ‘am I on my game here?’ But in the end I’d said what I wanted to say, and if the world likes it then great, but if they didn’t then at least I wrote from the heart and for myself; that’s what’s important.”
Goldblatt’s previous books The Ball is Round and Futebol Nation were very different books, with a different voice; one focusing on Brazilian culture and football, and one providing an overview of the world game.
“The experience wasn’t the fear of the blank page, because I never get the blank page.”
But the reason Goldblatt and critics alike thought The Game Of Our Lives stood out was that it was told from the heart, from the place which he was most consumed.
“I had to write it in a very different voice,” explains Goldblatt. “The Ball Is Round was very Olympian, from the mountain top looking down, whereas this book has a lot of personal experiences in it. And first person that made it a different kind of writing enterprise with a different kind of research.
“I was able to draw upon personal experience, like my time as a fan of Bristol Rovers.”
“I think in the eight years between The Ball Is Round and this one, so much more content has become available for me to search through. The online archive has gotten out of control. When I was writing The Ball Is Round in 2004 I was scratching around trying to find stuff about Uruguay for instance, and now you cannot move for material, particularly visual material,” he chuckles.
“I watched for example, for a piece in the book about mascots and how they fight each other or players, and there’s so much of that sort of thing on youtube, thank god someone is uploading the fights between mascots. I give praise and thanks!
“The online archive has gotten out of control.”
“This is a book that has got a lot of visual evidence, and we watch football so I think again English is my first language so I was able to in a way that I couldn’t with The Ball Is Round, engage with the mad sad world of the football blog or chat rooms. I was going into old chatrooms to look for, you know, what do Liverpool fans really feel about the team. It’s incredible.
“In regards to method though, I think of Martin Sheen in Apocalypse Now: ‘Method? I see no method at all? I wonder whether there is one, but definitely in terms of intimacy and types of material, it’s my home, there’s a lot of anger and political passion. It’s politicised reading, but that’s not right at the front.”
A more informed reader
There was also not only so much to learn, but an overlying sense of pressure because as he put it: “The readers of this book were always going to be far more knowledgeable and passionate when reading about their national leagues.”
It touched on so many subjects up and down the country, that inevitably it would spark a debate.
“Are we going to fight for a new football?… It’s a case of pessimism of the intellect and optimism of the will”
“I think there is pressure. I don’t think it was overwhelming, though. In a book like this where you’re representing or describing something as complex as amazing as a football club’s culture, you choose your words very carefully, you have time to craft it. It’s a gauntlet though, as I want people to respond, I want fans, people in power, the people I disagree with to come at me.
“It’s meant to be provocative, I’m waiting for a response from Greg Dyke and the rest of the FA board. Though I don’t expect one…
“You do have to be confident to write it. It was really good as an author to get into a groove and see the light at the end of the tunnel.
“In football culture, there’s a lot of banter, a lot of people disagreeing, but not many people lay it all on the line and say ‘This is what I think, and this is why’. This book is two fingers up at football, but they don’t care, they’re raking in billions in TV rights, they don’t need to talk to me.”
It can’t be that bad, can it?
Even to someone like Goldblatt, who has been researching and writing about football for decades, there were still some surprises in what was unearthed – no matter how trivial.
“It’s meant to be provocative, I’m waiting for a response from Greg Dyke and the rest of the FA board.”
“I was surprised by just how bad the FA is. Obviously everyone knows it’s hopeless and has an impossible job, but nobody has written a history of the Football Association, not a proper one. The official one is one we all laugh at. I think that’s amazing.
“It was really surprising just how incompetent they are, and that may seem strange coming from me.
“On the other hand, I was pleased by the extent by which despite every effort between Sky and BT complex to drain every element of spontaneity of the staging of the spectacular, there are innumerable forms of resistance by crowds in and outside stadiums.
“That’s what’s great about football, most of the time everything is about London and the South East, but football is Grimsby, Halifax, Sunderland, they get their moment in the sun. I got to tell interesting stories about those places.
“The depth of it surprised me.”
The football we deserve?
In the end, Goldblatt is still as outspoken about the top-end of English football now, as he was before. What The Game Of Our Lives has done, is given him a platform to express his true feelings in depth, rather than rehabilitate his views on the Premier League.
The beauty of the book, is that his opinion hasn’t changed on the subject only grown stronger. After further investigation, the politics behind the Premier League it is what David Golblatt thought it was; his assumptions have been right all along.
“We get the football partly that we deserve, and partly what we want. Are we going to fight for a new football, for a different kind of football, make it a better culture?” he pondered.
“The possibility is there but the likelihood is that we won’t. It’s a case of pessimism of the intellect and optimism of the will.”