Guest writer Scott Knowles returns to write for Under The League with a review of Joseph Lloyd Carr’s 1975 novel.
Joseph Lloyd Carr is deserving of his place amidst the ranks of England’s great cult writers. He wrote one undoubted classic novel in his lifetime and a handful of others than run the gamut from the good to the decidedly average. Unfortunately ‘How Steeple Sinderby Wanderers Won The F.A. Cup isn’t his classic (that would be the slight, wonderful ‘A Month In The Country’ – a book deserving of far more readers than it currently has) but even a middling fictional novel set within the world of football sets it head and shoulders above most of the rest of its peers.
It’s not a new opinion but the F.A. cup is a competition in danger of becoming something of an irrelevance. The final is still watched by many but presumably more from a sense of obeying tradition than an actual desire to do so. It could be argued that the fiasco surrounding Manchester United’s abandonment of the competition in 2000 (for the benefit of a failed World Cup bid) was the start of the malaise but really the rot set in much earlier than that. The acquisition of football rights by Sky and creation of the Premier League in the early nineties began a culture of football overload that eventually reached a point whereby a player couldn’t kick a ball in anger without it being caught on camera and analysed obsessively by people with access to technology that allowed them to fart about with an on-screen pen.
Subsequently this led to a sense of football fatigue. The poundingly advertised bright lights of the Champions League and access into the world of previously unrecognised foreign leagues meant that barely a day went by without a live game being shown on some channel or other. Even the summer months weren’t safe what with exclusive access to some friendly ‘Jacobs Crackers’ cup beamed into our rooms usually featuring the likes of Ajax, Everton, and two slightly obscure clubs there to make up the numbers.
Thus the F.A. cup became just A.N. Other competition – a slightly older, more respectable brother to the League Cup but still easy to ignore amidst the non-stop consumption culture of New Football. Sometime around the mid-noughties T.V. executives boiled the F.A. cup down to that Ronnie Radford goal against Newcastle, the Wimbledon triumph over Liverpool, and a bare chested Ryan Giggs celebrating against Arsenal – and if they repeated the phrase “the magic of” enough times people would maybe believe the competition still mattered.
‘How Steeple Sinderby Wanderers Won The F.A. Cup’ was first published in 1975 – at a time when the basis of the story (a non league team, via good luck and hard work, triumphing against the giants of football) was still vaguely within the realms of imagination. The money bandied around the top clubs these days mean only their lack of interest in the competition hands the occasional opportunity to outsiders (Portsmouth, Stoke and Cardiff reaching the final). Before Crawley’s tie with Manchester United in 2011 the last non league side to contest a 5th round F.A. cup game was Kidderminster Harriers eighteen years ago. In seasons past the concluding game of the oldest cup competition in the world was a real event – worthy of debate, excitement, songs released from the finalists. Nowadays the unending coverage seems disproportionate with the actual interest the final generates. Fourth in the league and the holy grail of potentially suckling at the teat of the Champions League is held in higher esteem than a cup that only offers trifling access to the Europa League.
The book is told from the perspective of Mr. Gidner – the man reluctantly put in charge of writing the Official History of a side who upset all the odds (amongst other things) to become the first non-league side to win the F.A. cup (not a spoiler – it’s clearly there in the title) since Tottenham back in 1901. What follows is an at times humorous, at times moving tale of ordinary people doing extraordinary things and the prizes that self belief and the dogged pursuit of ones dreams can achieve.
J.L. Carr himself played a season within the non league scene and so the sometimes bleak descriptions (“..grey men who had handed over 20p to cram close to grey men, huddling under a grey sky in a grey landscape on their grey way to the town cemetary.”) read more as affection towards those loyal few that show up regardless of weather or prospects of success than as the insult it first appears. Carr was also smart enough to realise that it’s the characters of the players – both literal and those just involved with the club – that tell the story rather than the action that happens on the pitch (or, “a ball travelling one way or the other” as he puts it at one point) and despite its brief 124 pages you develop a real feeling for these people, despite their flaws or prejudices, and their humble triumph is a genuinely feel-good moment in literature.
By the end of the novel you are aware that the lesson being taught to us is that the real stories of the F.A. cup are the ones that take place before most people have even realised the competition has started, on slipshod pitches amongst people just like us. That the feeling experienced by an electrician or plumber scoring the goal that puts his team through to the next qualifying round is infinitely more pure and joyous than one millionaire beating another in a final within an over-expensive stadium selling over-expensive food and merchandise whilst maintaining the sham notion of being ‘the sport of the people’.
The spirit of the F.A. cup lives on – you just have to know when and where to look for it. ‘How Steeple Sinderby Wanderers Won The F.A. Cup’ points the way.
Many thanks to Scott for this review. Scott can be followed on twitter, @FragileGang