Book of the Week

Football's Strangest Matches by Andrew Ward Robson Books, pounds 8.99 paperback
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The Independent Online
Football's Strangest Matches

by Andrew Ward Robson Books, pounds 8.99 paperback

IT IS, I'm sure, a scientifically proven fact that all men read on the toilet (whereas most women don't), and there is a certain kind of book ideally suited to such pleasures. This is one of them - sustained narrative eschewed in favour of nuggety historical chunks from football's repository of the weird and bizarre. To read it from cover to cover at a few sittings is to risk overkill. But as a light read for dipping into it is almost perfect.

There are several categories of strangeness: one is weather-afflicted games - the blizzard-hit game in 1962 for example, when Crewe entertained Accrington Stanley in what turned out to be the visitors' last match; or the "farce in the fog" of 1945, when Moscow Dynamo beat Arsenal 4-3, allegedly bringing on a substitute without taking anyone off.

Tucked away in the last paragraph of this piece, incidentally, is an story that warrants a full telling. During a wartime Edinburgh derby between Hibs and Hearts, the referee was ready to abandon the fog-shrouded affair but was enlisted, along with the players, to carry on so that Luftwaffe pilots, listening to an improvised radio commentary, would think it was a clear day over Edinburgh. Somebody at the BBC or Channel 4 should pick up on this tale, which would make a perfect little comedy.

Another category is goalscoring feats. Some are well-known, such as Denis Law's six for Manchester City against Luton in the FA Cup that were struck from the record books when the match was abandoned, or Manchester United's 23-0 FA Youth Cup win over Nantwich Town in 1952.

There are also some well-told tales of violence - the so-called "football war", when a World Cup qualifying tie between Honduras and El Salvador developed into full-scale hostilities, for example.

Ward does well to point out here that football was catalyst rather than cause. Occasionally, though, the hand of a professional historian is missing. How did it come about, for example, that Lancashire Fusiliers and "mid- Rhondda Athletic", a team of striking Welsh miners, played a match in Tonypandy in 1910? Another story worth a more complete telling.

Though it does not detract too much, other questions are begged. In South Wales in 1912, for instance, referee William Williams was killed in his dressing room after Wattstown v Aberaman. Wattstown's Hansford was convicted of manslaughter - and imprisoned for a month, a fact on which Ward fails to pass comment.

As for the bizarre, there are some diverting tales - the penalty-saving elephant in 1890s Leicester, or the English women who played a team of Canadian soldiers who had one hand tied behind their backs - though I could have stood more material from the Weird Department.

As someone who scored five times for the American Embassy in their 5- 4 win over the British Embassy in the Baghdad League in 1984, it is not surprising that one of my favourite stories concerns Wilfred Minter, who scored all St Albans' goals in their 8-7 defeat to Dulwich Hamlet in the fourth qualifying round of the FA Cup in 1922. The next week, Minter was made captain and the band played "For He's A Jolly Good Fellow". Now he has the posthumous honour of inclusion in this charming collection.

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3 Rothmans Rugby Union Yearbook 1999- 2000, edited by Mick Cleary and John Griffiths (Headline, paperback, pounds 18.99)

4 Official NFL 1999 Record And Fact Book, (Workman, paperback, pounds 18.99)

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6 Inside the All Blacks, Robin McConnell (Collins Willow, paperback, pounds 7.99)

7 Playfair Rugby Union Annual 1999-2000, edited by Stuart Farmer and Brendan Gallagher (Headline, paperback, pounds 8.99)

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9 Addicted, Tony Adams with Ian Ridley (Collins Willow, paperback pounds 6.99)

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List compiled by Sportspages Bookshops, 94-96 Charing Cross Road, London, 0171 240 9604 & St Ann's Square, Manchester, 0161 832 8530; www.sportspages.co.uk

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