Book review: A romp through a life in football

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The Independent Online
One of the least appealing aspects of a Saturday sports writer's job is the long trek back to town from northern games. The train networks are not at their best, the local Pink' Un is about the pinnacle of literary aspirations and Nuneaton is generally the cue for a chorus of "Stand up if you hate Man U" from a posse of southern supporters. Good company is essential at such times and the presence of Brian Glanville, hunched, mischievious and, particularly if the game has been poor, wickedly acerbic, is always guarantee that the evening will not be void.

We spent a happy few hours late last year, trundling back through the darkness after a drab 0-0 draw between Blackburn and Newcastle. It was a surprise to find Brian so far north. He has done his time, but London is his more regular beat these days, now that he has returned to his spiritual home at the Sunday Times. Many of the anecdotes related that night have been recorded in Football Memories (Virgin Books, pounds 16.99), which, as the title indicates, is not a conventional autobiography, more a colourful and not necessarily chronological romp through a varied football life. Reading it is rather like rummaging through the attic of a stately home. A little masterpiece here, a perfect cameo there, ah, some old Latin textbooks and blotched school reports.

No other journalist I know could begin a life story with the word "Bugger". But Glanville has made a particular point of doing so. The first line, in fact, is a decent guide to the following 269 pages of text. " `Bugger Bognor,' said King George V, on his deathbed..." it reads. And there you have it, the kernel of arguably the most influential football writer of his generation. The fruity language, the alliterative and slightly scatty prose style, the touch of name-dropping, the whiff of irreverence, the rumbling sense that life did not necessarily keep all its promises. If the latter is true, it is only because Glanville attempted a wider literary brief than the rest of us and therefore measured disappointment on a wider scale.

First and foremost, he is a football writer - during the Bobby Robson years, in particular, a writer of such sharp observation, wit and erudition that his regular column documenting the incompetence of the England management was the cornflake read on a Sunday morning (higher matters of state had to wait for the toast and marmalade) - but he also wrote novels, often on a sporting theme, and could hold his own in any wider philosophical or literary debate. He is rarely short of a pithy opinion on any subject, delivered in distinctive Old Carthusian tones with a Latin flourish.

Football Memories is essentially a series of written conversations. Like good conversations, they flutter a bit, from 1974 one paragraph, back a decade in the next. It is a book to graze on, not to be devoured from cover to cover. Characters flit on to and off the pages like the cast of Cecil B DeMille epic, illustrating not only Glanville's prodigious memory for faces - more than places, perhaps - but his insatiable curiosity. His view of post-war Italian football is kaleidoscopic and enthralling. Glanville was an English journalist in Rome during a unique winter when both Roman clubs had English managers, Jesse Carver at Roma and George Raynor at Lazio. In that sense, as in many others, Glanville was ahead of his time. If only the same could be said of those Saturday night trains.