Yellow Jersey Press, £16.99, 290pp. £15.29 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030
Promised Land, By Anthony Clavane
Friday 10 September 2010
For all his brilliance, Nick Hornby has a lot to answer for. His deeply personal and compelling account of the impact on his life of Arsenal Football Club spawned a genre of dubious quality, much of it mired in excruciating self-indulgence. It is not the least of Anthony Clavane's achievements that in his Promised Land, an absorbing and superbly wide-ranging history of Leeds United, he has managed to convey his lifelong passion for the subject without cost to the narrative flow.
It also helps that at no point does the author mistake a setback for his heroes as some calamitous development along the road to a third world war. However, as symbols of the hopes and disappointments of a brash and ambitious city, Clavane's beloved "whites" pass the most vigorous tests, all of which are handled with a fine mixture of wit and pain, not to mention biting reflection.
Most impressive is that, when you put down the book, you feel you know not just the story of a football team but the city it represents; its rawness and talent, its achievements and its failures and, maybe most of all, its resilience. Another native son, Keith Waterhouse and his creation Billy Liar, get almost as many mentions as the brilliant, tortured Leeds manager Don Revie and icons like Billy Bremner, John Giles and John Charles, but with no loss of focus on the central parable.
This is of a football team beloved within its own boundaries, reviled in most other places – and, especially when it was at the peak of its powers as one of the most formidable forces in Europe in the late 1960s and early 1970s, by the Fleet Street sportswriting establishment.
If Clavane and his city have chips on their shoulders, here they are rather brilliantly sculpted. Certainly it was not difficult for anyone who saw the Revie team at their best, and worst, not be drawn to both. On a rainy day at Elland Road, they so eviscerated the West Ham of Bobby Moore and Geoff Hurst that the squeamish surely watched between their fingers. Yet they enduringly failed to banish the charge that they could not truly leave the worst of their reputation in the past.
Clavane writes not just about the football but its impact on all sections of the city's population, and is particularly eloquent on his own Jewish background. His concluding wish is that "Billy Liar will get on the train and the Israelites will cross over into the Promised Land and the name of Leeds United, as one of the founders once dreamed, 'will finally appear on the rolls of the Football Association as the city which passed through fire, was cleansed and given a fair and sporting chance to rehabilitate itself'." It's a big hope, but then this is a surprisingly big book.
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