Andrew Longmore: Lessons of history which leap off the page

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There is something of Ronnie Corbett in Jim Walvin. It might be the squat figure, the ready chuckle or the permanently startled manner. But you can see him in his armchair regaling his grandchildren about the day he was splattered by a meat pie – hurled by Everton fans, as it happens – at Old Trafford or saw the first placard bearing news of the Munich air disaster in 1958. He listened to the 1948 Cup Final on the radio with his father, who had first courted his mother on a date at Old Trafford, then refused to speak to her all night because United had lost 4-0 to Derby County. His grandfather could recall the 1909 Cup Final. A passion for United, he says, was like religion. It came as a birthright.

In the week that the William Hill sports book prize could be awarded to one of that despised literary genre, a ghosted footballing autobiography – albeit a very good one – a special award should be given to a history of football called The People's Game. You will know it. If not, another paperback edition is due for publication shortly. The author was Jim Walvin, then a humble history lecturer at York University, and when the book was first published in 1975, football was in its hooligan phase and certainly not a respectable subject of study for a proper historian. Historians were supposed to write about history, not sport. But not only did Walvin bring a profound sense of scholarship to the study of football's roots – it was, after all, only a short hop from slavery, his specialist area of research – he wrote fluently and accessibly, for historians and football fans alike. And he did so long before Nick Hornby's Fever Pitch landed on the laps of café society.

"The history of football was thought of as sociology, a bit glib, a bit spivvish," he recalls. "History was dominated by men from Oxbridge, very straight, very traditional." The Times Higher Education Supplement ran a cartoon of a don with mortar board, gown and football boots. "Even 10 years ago, you couldn't really go into an academic gathering and say, 'What did you think of the game last night?' They'd look at you as if you'd got your flies open."

Walvin, now professor of history at York University, was in London last week, promoting the sequel, The Only Game, which brings the story of football into the 21st century. He had not intended to write about football again, but the recent revolution demanded professional analysis. "Football," he writes, "has changed more quickly and more fundamentally in the 1990s than it had through the whole of the previous century... physical reconstruction and satellite broadcasting has created a new game."

The effect on conversation in the ivory tower has been almost as drastic. At the launch of the book in York recently, Walvin was able to survey the room with a fan's eye. In one corner, his old vice-chancellor, a West Bromwich Albion fan, over there, a fellow prof who supports Nottingham Forest and, at the back, the professor of history at East Anglia, who is a season-ticket holder at Carrow Road. "Everyone knows that I'm a United fan. The game has come out of the closet now. People understand that there's no reason why you shouldn't be serious about art, opera, history and still like football."

The Only Game is not as engaging a book as its predecessor, perhaps because the characters within it are less attractive, partly also, I suspect, because of the author's own ambivalent attitude towards the changes. The history of football's last 20 years is largely one of greed, which does not put it totally at odds with the olden days. The difference is one of scale. Well before the advent of the £60,000-a-week player, Walvin was writing of the "astronomical sums" being paid to professional footballers, but his beloved United have played a leading role in the rush for the prawn sandwiches.

In the Seventies, Walvin left a game played in antiquated and squalid stadiums against a backdrop of hooliganism, racism and official incompetence. In the original draft of The Only Game, Walvin wrote that "a stream of urine frothing down the terraces" was a traditional accompaniment to a Saturday afternoon as a football spectator. The publishers cut out the sentence, deeming it far too earthy for the delicate sensibilities of the post-Hillsborough football fan. The people's game at the start of the 21st century is, as Walvin acknowledges, unrecognisable. Yet the recent strike threat has eerie echoes in the past.

In 1908, on the eve of a threatened strike, the secretary of the newly formed players' union noted that the authorities were demanding: "That they [the players] relinquish the rights of every worker to associate himself with his fellows so as to be better able to succour an unfortunate colleague... but they have refused to surrender their legal rights at the bidding of a body of men who do not contribute a penny piece to the upkeep of the game."

Time moves on, but not that fast. For a moment last week it seemed that two sets of millionaires would devour the golden goose once and for all. But history told Walvin what would happen when the brinkmanship ended.

"I would not want to return to the days of the mid-Seventies, not for a handsome fee," he says. Yet at the end of last season he took his grandson to Old Trafford, paid £50 for the privilege, and came away questioning whether a few United players had given him value for money. We muse about the reaction of the audience if half the cast of the Royal Shakespeare Company had simply muttered their lines and the other half were understudies. Oh, sorry, Toby Stephens is resting tonight, and Sam West. Oh, and the third spear-carrier has a hamstring strain (but will be available on Saturday). But football has grown fat on the land and no one is very interested in the fans any more. The People's Game has become The Only Game and lost its soul.

The People's Game (published in 1975 by Allen Lane)

The Only Game, (Longman, £19.99)

Between the lines

While on the subject of sporting literature, a mention of the runners and riders in the William Hill sporting book prize. I have not read them all, but can thoroughly recommend War, Baby: The Glamour Of Violence by Kevin Mitchell (published by Yellow Jersey Press, £10), and Full Time: The Secret Life Of Tony Cascarino, by Paul Kimmage (Simon and Schuster, £6.99), which are regarded as the two favourites.

Mitchell wraps a study of violence round the most savage fight of modern times, between Gerald McLellan and Nigel Benn for the World Boxing Council world super-middleweight title at the London Arena in February 1995.

Neither of the protagonists talk about the fight; Benn because he will not, McLellan because he cannot. Yet Mitchell finds enough characters to tell the story, which is as much a personal journey into obsession as a tale of two men drawn as if by an invisible thread towards ultimate destruction in the ring.

Full Time is a study of insecurity by a man with an identity crisis. Cascarino was qualified to play for Italy, Scotland and England, but he played for Ireland, the one country for which he was not qualified. Why? "Because they chose me."

Deep down, Cas knew he was not quite good enough. Not quite good enough as a man, not quite good enough as a footballer. But it is his willingness to admit to both failings which puts him in the minority. Courage and heroism mingle with the guilt. In the end, the boy done good.

Also on the shortlist are: Seabiscuit, The True Story Of Three Men And A Racehorse, by Laura Hillenbrand (Fourth Estate, £16.99); Looking For A Fight by David Matthews (Headline, £14.99), and A Voyage For Madmen by Peter Nichols (Profile, £16.99).