On football poetry and why it matters

If you dislike football, and QPR and/or England even more, then you probably ought, as Des Lynam used to say, to look away now.

I’ve been a football fan almost as far back as I can remember, and in 1973 chose QPR, then newly promoted to the old First Division, as my team. I sometimes wonder what I’ve done to deserve almost a lifetime of supporting them, though, on balance, the highs have just about outweighed the many nadirs, the lowest of the low perhaps being, in 1998, the brief simultaneous appearance in the hoops of Razor Ruddock, carrying more timber than a glen-full of caber-tossers, and Vinnie ‘off-to-Hollywood’ Jones, both barely bothering to walk, let alone run, with Jones spending much of the game very loudly calling his rather more energetic young teammate Tony Scully a ‘fucking cunt’.

I’ve also endured (on telly) nearly every England game since one happy Saturday in 1975 when I rushed home from my junior school’s fete to watch then QPR and England captain Gerry Francis inspire them to their second best ever 5–1 win, over the Auld Enemy. It wasn’t until 1982, following an infamous qualifying disaster in Oslo, that I was able to see England play in a tournament. That World Cup started perfectly, with a scintillating win over Platini’s France, but ended, as it always has in my lifetime, in defeat, Keegan and Brooking’s last-throw-of-the-dice double-act unable to save them. Naturally, England fans ran riot, inspired by Thatcher’s colonial war to save Britons so patriotic they chose to live 8,000 miles away. Then they were back to the old ways of failing to qualify, for the Euros in ’84, before the agony of Mexico ’86. Everyone remembers Maradona’s Hand of God and that sensational run for his and Argentina’s second, revenge of sorts for that war I mentioned, one of the four defenders he left in his wake being QPR’s Terry Fenwick; but it’s the England response that sticks most in my mind: on as a sub, John Barnes’s wing-play was unbelievably good, setting up one goal and providing a cross which Lineker was an inch away from. I remember pacing around the house afterwards, feeling the disappointment of that defeat as real physical pain.

The ’88 Euros were a shambles: three games, three defeats, seven goals conceded and only two scored. Lord knows how Bobby Robson (born, incidentally, on the same day in 1933 as Yoko Ono and my mum) was still manager two years later for the near-glory of Italia ’90. England started slowly at that tournament, as they’ve done many times since, and grew and grew into what looked like an unstoppable force. Whether the switch to a system with mad Mark Wright a revelation as sweeper really was, as supposed, senior England players’ idea or Robson’s, it was inspired. In retrospect the fact that it took a fluky deflection off QPR’s Paul Parker for that brilliant German side to score was testament to how good that England team – Gascoigne, Lineker and all – had become. Again, the disappointment was something tangible.

I won’t discuss hapless Graham Taylor’s reign except to recall that on a pre-season tour of Sweden, after he’d just taken over as Wolves manager in the summer of ’94, he went over to thank some Wolves fans, asked them why they’d come all that way and got a blunt Black Country reply along the lines of “We would’ve been in America, but you fucked that up for us, didn’t you”. I also recall a Bolton fan being up in court for throwing a turnip at him and then having his fine doubled by the magistrate for declaring that it was worth it.

Euro ’96 was a blur of excitement, guided by ex-QPR boss (and player) Terry Venables, but that Gascoigne miss lingers . . . You get the gist. Beckham’s red card against Argentina in ’98 (what a game it had been up to that point). Keegan’s gung ho naivety in 2000. That 2002 side which also grew and grew, with ex-QPR Trevor Sinclair outstanding, but which didn’t properly show up against a Brazil team whom they were more than capable of beating, and lost to a ridiculous lob over the head of also ex-QPR David Seaman.

I won’t go on. But I will say that England’s current crop are playing the best and most assured tournament football that I reckon I’ve ever seen from an England squad. Whereas previous England teams, including that of 1990 which almost exited against Cameroon, have been prone to panic at the mere sight of opposition players running at their defence, this squad has defended brilliantly, from front to back. Kyle Walker, who had a fondly-remembered loan spell at QPR 10 years ago, has made many blisteringly fast recovery runs to snuff out trouble despite being the oldest member of the squad. Going forward, their resources are as rich as any squad I can recall, and Sterling, on QPR’s books until he was 15, has been chief among them. More than that is the exemplary manner of how they conduct themselves in the manner of their manager, an affable, dignified man who knows and celebrates the fact that the players he’s picked reflect the true diversity and inclusiveness of English society. These are footballers who recognise that they are role models and that their fabulous wealth can be used to help remedy the wrongs inflicted by years of years of uncaring, selfish government. Even if they lose tomorrow night, they have already done so much to erase the pain of all those previous near-successes.


‘What of football poetry?’ I hear you ask. Well, when I was a boy, I could turn to my dad’s Wisden collection for fantastic writing about my other sporting love, yet football literature consisted mostly of annuals, in which the likes of Ken Dodd, and even Marty Feldman, arsed about and gurned at some club or other’s training ground. Although I used to read match reports in the Guardian, it was only later that I discovered that there were some anthologies containing superb prose accounts of great games and players by the likes of Geoffrey Green, Hugh McIlvanney and my favourite, Brian Glanville. Those books would often contain a few poems, mostly by the doyen of football poets, Alan Ross, whose hymn to Stanley Matthews remains perhaps the most famous football poem in English, plus Ted Hughes’s fine ‘Football at Slack’. Ross’s poem ‘G. Lineker’ obliquely but cleverly addresses the approach of that celebrated goal-poacher:

A style suggested by a name,
A way of comportment, of playing
In the merging of ‘line’ and ‘glint’
Necessary elusiveness, hint
Of mother of pearl, ‘nacreous’,
As in the opening, knife-edged,
Of two halves of an oyster.

His poem ‘Football Grounds of the Riviera’ is lovely:

Menton at home to Nice, the French league leaders.
Sun only a rind squeezed dry of its heat,
And below us the voices of bathers scratch
At the cellophane air, airing ignorance of the match.

For me though, the incidence of excellent football-related poetry seems remarkably low given how central a role the sport has played in our cultural landscape over the last 150 years. Thankfully, there are some exceptions.

Don Paterson’s ‘Nil Nil’ from his 1993 (debut) Faber collection of the same name, contains, despite its digressions, a rich kernel:

McGrandle, majestic in ankle-length shorts,
his golden hair shorn to an open book, sprinting
the length of the park for the long hoick forward,
his balletic toe-poke nearly bursting the roof
of the net

All that assonance – ‘ank’/‘book’/‘park’/‘hoick’/‘poke’ – is rather trowelled on, but the description of the player’s movement and finish is undeniably vivid.

Rory Waterman’s ‘Alfreton Town 0, Brackley Town 1 (89’)’, from his 2020 Carcanet collection Sweet Nothings, captures the weird devotion of grown men to football clubs way down the football pyramid (though both clubs in the poem are now in the sixth tier of English football): ‘The pitch is white where the sun’s not been seen / on its hill-cresting flight. The tea queue is long / and shrouded in breath, as men in fat coats / grunt at each other, though the game’s going on’. I won’t quote any more because it would ruin the surprise of a terrific poem which is both very funny and sad. That image of ‘men in fat coats’ is beautifully observed. It reminds me of those different, absurdly long coats which Arsène Wenger used to wear, which resembled sleeping bags and/or made him look like Olive Oyl, depending on your viewpoint.

I also much admire ‘Geese Above Highfield Road’ by Oliver Comins, first published by Alan Ross in his London Magazine. Matthew Stewart has rightly highlighted its brilliance on his Rogue Strands blog. It’s one of those poems which I wish I had written, having many times seen Vs of geese heading over Loftus Road. As Matthew notes, it can’t have been easy being a Coventry fan, as Peter Raynard would also testify, in recent years, so it’s gladdening to a poem set in their more stable times.

I should highlight Matthew’s own ‘Las Cigüeñas’ which is as atmospheric, in its own way, as Oliver’s, to which, being equally prompted by the seemingly incongruous sight of birdlife, it could be a Spanish cousin. The reasons outlined by the editors of The Friday Poem as to why they chose it for publication are spot-on. As a fan, like Rodney Wood, of Aldershot Town, Matthew must also know a thing or two about the travails of following an unfashionable club, and one with at least two QPR connections – Ian Gillard and Gary Waddock, both of whom I saw play many times at the tail-end and beginning/prime of their respective illustrious careers.

In his 2018 Seren collection Way More Than Luck, Ben Wilkinson included a 14-poem middle section, ‘An Ordinary Game’, devoted to football, to Liverpool FC specifically and several of its key figures in particular: Shankly, Barnes, Grobbelaar, Liddell, Gerrard, Fowler, Torres, Suárez and King Kenny himself, who adorns the cover. The Dalglish poem, an unrhymed sonnet, is arguably the most memorable of them, because rather than attempting to depict his indescribable playing ability, it focuses on his immensely brave response the day after the Hillsborough disaster. To have witnessed that after having also been present at Heysel in 1985 would’ve broken a lesser person. Wilkinson’s poem captures the heartrending moment:

The one man, making no fuss, steps up,
sits down two teddy bears, gifted by his kids;

a man who’s performed miracles on this field,
resurrected hopes. Who’ll pay his respects
to every one, not in duty’s name, but love’s.
They supported Liverpool Football Club.
It’s the turn of the Club to support them.

As all these poems, bar perhaps Ross’s Matthews one, show, the best poems about football, about sport in general – like novels and films about sport – transcend the sport itself. A few days ago, I watched, for the first time in many years, Lindsay Anderson’s 1963 film of David Storey’s novel This Sporting Life. The rugby league sequences within it are remarkably well done when compared with other sport sequences in dramatic films, like Escape to Victory or The Damned Utd. One couldn’t expect an actor to convey the skills and balance of top-class footballers. Poets, on the other hand, can, with words, do exactly that and more, and widen the angle to show exactly why football matters.

I couldn’t not finish by quoting the last stanza of Ross’s poem ‘World Cup’, about the final in 1966:

Arms raised like gladiators, they embrace.
Human emotions swamp them, childishly even
For such protagonists of perfection.
    And involved in this mixture
Of the fallible and the dreamy,
The percussive and the lilting, they demonstrate
How art exist on many levels, spirit
And matter close-knit as strangling lianas.

One thought on “On football poetry and why it matters

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s