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My Father and Other Working-Class Heroes by Gary Imlach

PostPosted: Wed Jun 27, 2007 10:27 am
by Con Murphy
I’ve lived and breathed football for as long as I’ve….well, lived and breathed. But I can count the number of truly rewarding books that I’ve read on the subject on the toes of my uncultured left foot. Pete Davies’ book about England’s 1990 World Cup campaign, All Played Out, was a revelation when it came out, but when I went back to it recently it seemed verbose and over-analytical. It probably now suffers for the over-intellectualisation of the game that followed in its wake – the clumsy pseudo-poetic metaphors of Simon Barnes and inflated gravitas of James Lawton being the two biggest culprits these days.

Gary Imlach has always been far too straight-talking a man to make it into the asinine world of mainstream TV football presentation, but he has always added a welcome passionate, informed but slightly sardonic edge to coverage of the Tour de France and various US sports over the years, and he brings those assets - and a welcome candid style - brilliantly together in his book My Father and Other Working-Class Heroes.

What writers like Lawton and Barnes seem to struggle to understand is something that Imlach's book illustrates very well, which is that romance is inherent in football - it’ll come out in the telling of the tale, not some florid analogy with Agincourt. And the tale Imlach tells is of his father, Stewart Imlach, who was just another skinny Scottish kid living the post-war jumpers for goalposts cliché, kicking a ball around the local rec’ in a small fishing village before being whisked up into the dizzy heights of pro football. His peak: representing Scotland in the 1958 World Cup, and being an FA Cup winner with Notts Forest the following year.

But through all that, Imlach senior and his colleagues were subject to the vagaries of the tyrannical chairmen of football clubs, and insular, out of touch committees that ran the national team. Not to mention the anachronistic maximum wage, and the restraining effects of the patrician owners exploiting working-men’s gratitude for escaping a life of drudgery, by loading contractual rights in favour of the club owners.

Stewart Imlach was a national hero in the winter, and joiner and double-glazing fitter in the summer, fixing the windows and plumbing of the people who paid to witness his wing-wizardry on cold Saturday afternoons in December. And when his chairman did a pocket-lining deal that meant him moving to Bury, or Leicester, or any other staging post on the long path of injury-related career decline, the family was upped and moved to another club-owned semi with nary a query or signing-on fee demand. It’s incredible to think how things have changed in 50 years.

Anyway, it’s all told with great wit, a genuine retrospective love and respect for his recently-deceased father’s achievements, and a carefully-calibrated mix of social and sporting history – I particularly like little asides such as Imlach describing a game he and his mates played in the ‘close season’, quickly correcting himself because as he says, the ‘street’ football season starts when you’re old enough to join in and only really pauses when you reach adolescence.

This is my kind of football book – short (probably shorter than this review!), sympathetic, evocative, yes nostalgic, probably set in too specific a milieu for some to really engage with (eg, Stewart Imlach was coach of Everton’s impressive 1970 League Championship winning team – Gary’s wonderment at being able to rub shoulders with Ball, Kendall and Harvey as a child will probably only transmit to those old enough to remember those names), but easily the most absorbing football book I’ve read in years.

(The postscript to the story is that by a quirk of the cap-awarding system, Scottish internationals in those days only received one cap per season based on criteria that Imlach Snr never matched. Caps mean everything in British football – you don’t play x number of games for your country, you win x number of caps. Gary Imlach’s campaign to see just reward for the 90 or so internationals that were never ‘capped’ finally saw success last year when the players each received what they’d earned many years previously. Many of those caps - like Stewart Imlach’s – were received posthumously.)