Book of the Week: Football Memories by Brian Glanville

Football Memories

by Brian Glanville Virgin, pounds 16.99, hardback

THE deceptively plain title of this quasi-autobiography by a pioneering English football critic is undermined by what may well be the most entertaining index ever published, full of deliciously improbable juxtapositions: Altafini, Jose and Amis, Kingsley; Hidegkuti, Nandor and Highsmith, Patricia; Rossi, Paolo and Roth, Philip. Best of all is the pairing of Benetti, Romeo and Bennett, Alan; perhaps Brian Glanville, who is no stranger to fiction, will one day invent a conversation between Juventus's midfield assassin and the mild-mannered Yorkshire dramaturge.

As the index, so the book. The story of a tubercular Jewish public schoolboy who abandoned a career in law to pursue his enthusiasms, it features a cast, almost literally, of thousands, many of whom have managed to do things like combine appearances for Ayr United with the authorship of a monograph on Strindberg.

Although he began life as an Arsenal fan, it was in Italy, where he lived for several years as a young man, that his perspective was broadened. Shortly before Hungary shattered England at Wembley in 1953, the 22-year- old Glanville had begun work on a book titled British Soccer And The Foreign Challenge. "Its theme," he writes, "was to be the gradual decline of the British game as it was steadily overtaken by European and South American football."

Between 1958 and 1992, the readers of The Sunday Times sports pages were the beneficiaries of this vision, their knowledge of the world game enriched by his willingness to examine the mysteries of catenaccio. He was not the only football writer capable of a novelist's use of language, but he had a unique voice, sophisticated and argumentative. Happy memories of his Sunday morning wake-up calls are regularly evoked throughout a book in which the provocations outnumber the prolixities.

Virgin Books' editing, by the way, is a disgrace. We get "Dany" Blanchflower, Geoffrey "Greene" of the Times, John "Roddha" of the Guardian, La "Bombanera", someone who is the "loyalist" of friends and, among Muhammad Ali's entourage, not only "Budini" Brown but also a soul singer, soon to die in a motel shooting, called Sam "Fox". Perhaps Richard Branson plans to do for literature what he has already achieved with railway timetables.

Richard Williams