INTERVIEW BY DOMINIC BLISS
A new book celebrating the traditional football annual has been released just in time for Christmas and it really is as good as it looks. Co-author Ian Preece emerged from the dusty archives to tell us a bit more about what we can expect to find in the pages of this majestic hardback book…
The first thing that strikes you about this book is its appearance. It’s beautifully designed, in the style of the annuals you’re writing about and features some great old photos. You must be delighted with the way it looks…
Yeah, really pleased. That’s all down to Doug (and Jorn) at When Saturday Comes. I worked with [co-author] Doug Cheeseman over twenty years ago on Shoot! and This is Soccer (if anyone is old enough to remember those books), and we wanted this book to look like the annuals we were talking about. So there are sort of subtle design shifts through each chapter, from the fifties up to the seventies and eighties, really. And the photography in the annuals back in the day was fantastic. None of these telephoto-lensed, cropped-in shots of Steven Gerrard’s head or Ronaldo’s neck, but lovely, expansive photographs of the terraces, the crowd, the turf, the sky, old stands and scoreboards, and what have you.
Tell us some more about your motivation for producing the book and how yours and Doug’s initial plans progressed into the final product.
Well, it sort of grew from a supplement we did that was free with the Christmas edition of When Saturday Comes – that was three years ago now. In the WSC office there was a collection of old annuals – probably 150 or so, maybe more, mainly from the 1960s and 70s; they belonged to WSC old-timers like Ian Plenderleith, Bill Brewster, John Duncan and Tim Bradford – and I spent a week in there reading through them, sort of looking at how football used to be presented, the stuff around the culture of the game too. I had a limit of about 3000 words for the supplement – but I could have written 20,000.
There was a lot of gumpf, but there was also a hell of a lot of interesting stuff. And, a bit like with the photography, the lens was so much wider back then. My immediate favourites were Eamon Dunphy’s old regional annuals – Northern, Midlands and London (which included the likes of Ipswich!) – beautifully laid out (a bit like black and white versions of The Face) and full of three- or four-page largely well-written articles on behind the scenes at Mansfield, or Oldham. You just wouldn’t get that today. I remember when my kids started school (in east London) other kids used to laugh at them in their Forest shirts. They’d never heard of Nottingham Forest – that was over 10 years ago (they’re sixth-formers now), but kids just discovering football today: have they heard of Carlisle? Southport? Alloa Athletic? Probably not, unless they’re from there.
So that was a major theme – coverage of Leyton Orient being every bit as important as that of Manchester United – then there was the fact that, also, nothing really changes. They were talking about goal-line technology for tricky decisions as far back as the mid-sixties (using film), but the only difference was you’d see a photo feature in something like the Topical Times saying ‘…goal or no goal? Has the ball crossed the line?’ and the shot would be from Gillingham v Exeter, or Airdrie v Raith Rovers. They were also obsessed with arguments over a mid-winter break…and, towards the late sixties, the fact that football was getting too negative, there were too many 0-0 draws as teams were too afraid to lose … I guess we wanted to do something in the vein of Simon Inglis’s fine book on Charles Buchan’s Football Monthly, also Derek Hammond and Gary Silke’s Got Not Got series of books – essential reading for our generation.
When I was a young lad, I sort of mocked up my own version of the Shoot! league ladders: I had an old Subbuteo scoreboard that had 92 – all 92, including Barrow and Bradford Park Avenue – strips of white paper each with a club’s name printed on it. I used to lay them out as four divisions on an old jigsaw board, and move them up and down according to the new table in the Saturday evening Football Post. The fact that Walsall might be dropping like a stone down Division 3 was absolutely as important, interesting and relevant as Liverpool and Derby, or Liverpool and QPR, battling it out at the top of Division 1. What happened to that world? That’s what we wanted to capture as much as anything.
What’s the first football annual you remember and what impact did it have on you?
Now you’ve exposed me. I used to get the Shoot! annual in the mid-seventies as a kid, but I can’t say I was a huge fan. I probably read Roy of the Rovers more, and fantasized about one day being any good for the school team (I was crap: no pace, no talent, usually only selected for away games so my mum could take some other players in her car). I certainly didn’t read Shoot! cover-to-cover … whereas virtually everyone I interviewed who was a generation older, say, would do that – they’d devour/have finished Charles Buchan’s Soccer Gift Book, or the Big Book of Football Champions (late fifties and early sixties stalwarts), often by the time it was dark on Christmas Day afternoon. Football was just this incredibly exciting other back then; this world you didn’t really know about. Now, you can’t escape it. What I did do was start picking up annuals at car boot fairs and jumble sales in the late eighties/early nineties. You could get them for nothing – 10p – back then, and they were already looking beautiful at that point.
It’s obviously a nostalgia-fest for football fans of a certain generation but what will people under the age of 30 learn from this book about how the generation before them consumed football writing and imagery?
Yeah, I wonder about that. Kids are often just not really bothered – just bored – by old football and old football talk. But once you get to your thirties, I think that’s when you start slowly becoming obsessed by ‘the past’. It happens to everyone eventually. What we really wanted to do was just present how detailed everything seemed back then – you know, you’d have someone going on at great length about the different coloured lights, and what they all meant, on the new electronic scoreboard at Craven Cottage. People genuinely seemed to care that you understood a pink light followed by a green light meant Huddersfield were beating Burnley 2-1 at half-time – and just how wide the canvas was. It’s become almost a cliché, but, yes, I’d like folks under 30 to realise there was life before 1992 (I’m sure plenty do know that – it’s more of a media thing, really).
What has the process of writing this book taught you about the way the game has changed over the past 40 years?
Footballers, until pretty much the eighties – but certainly back in the fifties and sixties – were just like everyone else. They lived on the same streets, drank in the same pubs. I sort of knew that, and I could be being naïve here, but I really don’t think money was so all consuming in the game then. Looking through the annuals, you can see it starting to happen in the early seventies: it’s probably unfair to pick him out, but I can remember seizing on a Topical Times piece about Everton’s Jimmy Husband, from around 1971. He’s perched on the bonnet of his E-type Jag and he says the main thing he wants from football is a decent amount of money to live on after he retires. Second, he says he wants an FA Cup winners’ medal. That would have been unthinkable sacrilege twenty years earlier, when you’ve got Tommy Lawton chiding himself for overdoing it with goal celebrations (i.e., it’s not about the goalscorer, it’s about the glory of the team, etc). I like that way of thinking.
One of my favourite things about old football annuals is their coverage of overseas football, which was far from ubiquitous in the sixties, seventies and eighties. How did you view those articles as a young reader and how do they appear now, through twenty-first century eyes?
As a young reader I’m ashamed to say I probably didn’t take much notice. In a partial defence I suppose you could say the seventies were fairly dark times for England in terms of international football, World Cups and what have you, I guess, and I was just a bit too young to appreciate things like the Dutch and Total Football. Had I been around ten years earlier, in the early-to-mid-sixties, I’d probably have a different take. The annuals were full of discovering the exciting new world of foreign football: all under-floor heating, plunge pools and chipped marble décor at the Bernabeu, teams who pass the ball properly, attacked with skill and flair, etc; Eddie Firmani was just back at Charlton from Genoa; Jimmy Greaves was in Italy. Richard Williams and Johnny Green (interviewees) are great in the book on the glamour of ‘Continental’ football compared to black and white Britain.
If you could pick out some sensational snippets included in this book, what would they be?
Well, I suppose using the modern definition of ‘sensational’ by today’s media standards, there’s the headline from an article in the 1965-66 Topical Times annual: ‘DOPED! SO I COULD PLAY IN THE FINAL AT WEMBLEY’ (which refers to Spurs’ Bobby Smith neglecting to tell Bill Nicholson that he’s got a trapped nerve touching the cartilage of his right knee. He can barely walk, but a series of furtive visits to a private GP for ‘painkillers’ in the days leading up to the 1961 FA Cup final sorts him out – in fact he goes on to score as Spurs beat Leicester 2-0.)
The 1968 International Football Book ran an interview with a professor of psychology who outlined his belief that sex, violence and football were unavoidably intertwined: ‘The satisfactions which players derive from football seem to bear some likeness to the sequence of pleasures in sex. There is the foreplay, the mounting tension and finally an explosive climax. When a goal is scored there is a vast detumescent relief. No wonder the word “sport” once meant “amorous dalliance”. Anyone keyed to a high pitch of excitement can fly into a fury if things go wrong.’ I don’t think you’d find that kind of analysis in a Match annual today.
Less sensational, but my own personal favourites are: John Macadam, a Charles Buchan Soccer Gift Book scribe with an unfeasibly large moustache, who later lived on a houseboat near Chelsea, filed a great piece about how Grimsby unquestionably topped the list of league clubs in terms of fine hospitality. This seemed to be based on his recollections of liquid lunches with the manager ‘dear old Frank Womack’ (usually on a Saturday lunchtime ahead of a game) and the box of complimentary fish that would be sent back with him on the train to London.
There’s also a fantastic rant by Denis Compton in Peter Dimmock’s 1959 Sportsview Book of Soccer, where he lambasts a typical British game: all fury, headless chickens and long balls, no poise or composure. No wonder we’re in the learner pool of international football.