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Interview: Gary Imlach

5 December 06 interview: James K Walker

My Father and Other Working-Class Football Heroes is not only a former William Hill Sports Book of the Year – it’s probably the best book that’s been written about football in quite a while. We speak to the author Gary Imlach...

On the surface, My Father... is the biography of Stewart Imlach, the 50’s Forest winger who not only was Man of the Match in the 1959 FA Cup final, but the first representative of either Nottingham club in the World Cup. More importantly, it’s a historical and cultural analysis of how football has shifted dramatically from working-class pursuit to middle-class leisure option. When Imlach the elder was at his peak, First Division footballers barely earned as much as the factory workers on the terraces, and the idea of a player being set up for life simply didn’t exist. As a child born in West Bridgford (as part of ‘Nottingham’s post-Cup Final baby boom’, Imlach’s book is a tale of getting to know what made his frequently-absent father tick, long after the chance to sit down and talk slipped by.As a postscript, the book even managed to get the author’s father a posthumous cap for his appearance in the 1958 World Cup (which was denied to him in life due to ridiculous bureaucracy), adding another dimension to this fascinating story. What makes My Father…particularly unique is that it is a football book written with absolute detachment for the sport, devoid of the fake ‘passion’ that characterises the average footy biog. Quite an achievement when you realise it is written by a seasoned TV sports professional best known for his coverage of the Tour de France and the NFL. Not only is it a lament for a father he left it too late to know properly, it’s an elegy for a sport that has become bloated and commercialised out of all recognition. Suffice to say, it’s a little bit better than Wayne Rooney’s ghost-written autobiography. And he even has a pop at the 60s regeneration of Nottingham…
Did you receive any help from your family in the research?
Yes, mainly from my mum. Having failed to sit down and really talk with my father before it was too late, writing the book gave me the perfect excuse to do exactly that with my mother, and I'm very glad that it did.

Did writing the book help to re-ignite a passion for football?   
No, the opposite. Writing the book helped crystallize for me the reasons I'd drifted away. I was still shouting at the television during the World Cup, mind, but I didn't pay enough attention to fancy myself as a tipster.

Can we expect any extra chapters in future editions?
Well, there were any number of dead ends in my research, usually because none of the key characters in a given episode were still alive to tell their version of the tale. But I'm grateful for what I have discovered, and anyway you have to draw the line somewhere - for your own psychological health if nothing else.

Although your father received a posthumous cap, are you still bitter about his treatment by the SFA?
I was bitter about it and I suppose I still am - given that what's been achieved since his death could have been achieved before it. Funnily enough, receiving the cap wasn't the big thing - it was the telephone call from the Chief Executive of the SFA to say that the decision had been taken that brought some feeling of satisfaction.

Which is your favourite cap - the one made by Brian Turner of Majestic Trophies of Nottingham before your father’s death, or the official one?
Maybe Brian’s cap had more value; a cap crafted out of genuine feeling by people who saw him play and admired him, as opposed to an item squeezed out of an unwilling bureaucracy on a technicality. But I don't think in terms of favourites. 

You have very strong opinions on the current state of football. Do you believe it’s in danger of imploding?

I don't see it imploding, but I wouldn't shed any tears if it did.
Would a potential wage cap save it?
I think a wage cap will prove extremely difficult to frame and enforce, so I see the financial disparities stretching ever wider.

As part of your research, you returned to Nottingham
I went there on a trip into the past, so the actual Nottingham and the one I visited are different places. Because I haven't diluted my childhood memories with repeated return visits, I found it full of strong and sudden associations with the past. For that reason, what I particularly liked were the streets around my old house on Albert Road in West Bridgford and the park opposite.
Topping an award winning book is going to be a hard task, any plans?
It's a question my agent and publisher are taking it in turns to put to me. I'll take suggestions.

My Father and Other Working-Class Football Heroes is available in paperback from Yellow Jacket Press, RRP £7.99

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