BOOK OF THE WEEK; Wanderers united in march to battle

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The Independent Online
Wartime Wanderers

by Tim Purcell and Mike Gething (Mainstream Publishing, pounds 14.99)

Now here is a novelty, a book that makes the memoirs of most people involved in football seem hopelessly shallow. Triumph and adversity? Even the current Arsenal team have had sheltered lives compared to the Bolton Wanderers side that went to war en masse and came back from some of the great battles of Europe and North Africa only to confront disaster of another breed.

Different times, different responses. When the Government was urging men to join the Territorial Army in the countdown to the Second World War, the Bolton players did not rush off to their agents to discuss selling a "My Battle With Jerry" stories to the tabloids. They listened to their captain, Harry Goslin, and enlisted together.

Goslin was the leader by temperament as well as appointment and it was natural that he should address a 23,000 crowd before a match at Burnden Park to urge them to do their bit. "This is something you can't leave to the other fellow," he said via a primitive microphone. "Everybody has a share to do."

The following Monday the entire Bolton first team joined the 53rd Field Regiment of the Bolton Artillery, a decision that would propel them from dreams of 90-minute glory to their finest hours at Dunkirk, El Alamein and Monte Cassino. Astonishingly, considering the number of times they were present at decisive moments of the conflict, only one of them was killed and, ironically, it was the man who led them into battle, Lt Goslin.

With the return of peace, the returned to Bolton to find, for many of them, the lost six years had cost them their football careers. For those whose skills had endured, one final tragedy would await them, however. A crowd of more than the 65,419 that was officially recorded packed Burnden Park on 9 March for an FA Cup tie against Stoke City and with 20,000 people locked outside, a disaster was asking to happen. A retaining wall and barriers collapsed and 33 people died.

The subject matter clearly puts this book apart from most other sports tomes, but if there is a misgiving about the book it is its preoccupation with war time Burnden Park. Clearly the authors have identified their readership as predominantly Bolton-based, but to a non-supporter the details of the sub-plot can be irksome and trivial compared to the events in the main story.

That minor quibble over, there are enough ingredients here to make a film and, funnily enough, one is sufficiently far down the pipeline that the actors have been announced: Tony Hadley, Sean Maguire, Aled Jones, Bradley Walsh and Helen Bray. That is due for release next year, but in the meantime this is an interesting taster. You could spend your Christmas book tokens on far worse.

Guy Hodgson

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