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Book Review: My Father and Other Working Class Heroes

23 October 06 words: James Walker

The author tries to piece together the life of his recently deceased father, a stoic individual who, like most from his time, kept his feelings hidden

Book Review: My Father and Other Working Class Heroes by Gary Imlach

This entertaining and thoughtful read works on three levels. Firstly, it is a biography of Stuart Imlach, the former Nottingham Forest and Scotland winger. Secondly, it is one family’s fight against bureaucracy to obtain an international ‘cap’ for services rendered and finally, it is a cultural analysis of the transformations in post-war Britain which has seen football become a middle rather than working class sport. The author takes the reader down memory lane as he tries to piece together the life of his recently deceased father – a stoic individual who like most from his time, kept his feelings hidden whilst alive. The fact that we know everything about current players (think ‘Footballers’ Cribs’ and Beckham inc) is itself an indication of how times have changed.

Stuart Imlach may be remembered as many things; as the only professional footballer descending from Lossiemouth, as never receiving a single booking during his 423 league and cup games over 14 seasons, as the left footed winger who ran with his jaw yanked wide open and of particular significance to this region, a former Notts County assistant, Derby winger and Forest’s man of the match in the 1959 F. A. Cup final.

Imlach was one of Forest’s four cornerstones, along with Burkitt, Morley and Bailey. In many ways the team of this period was not to dissimilar to those who would later take Brian Clough to European glory as they were ‘an unlikely blend of veterans, cast-offs, stars the bigger clubs thought were past their prime and younger players who, for one reason or another, hadn’t realised their full potential elsewhere.’ His role was to hug the touchline in the W formation which, twenty years later, would bring John Robertson notoriety.

Stuart Imlach played for Scotland during the 1958 World Cup in Sweden but never received an international cap at the time as they were only awarded for games against the ‘Home’ countries. Fortunately, a local man called Brian Turner of Majestic Trophies made Stuart a replica. He had been a fourteen-year-old Forest fan when they won the cup and so it was an opportunity for him to give something back to his hero. As Imlach junior notes ‘maybe it 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.’ This book was a contributing factor in eventually getting the archaic rule over turned and stands as a refreshing reminder of the power of literature, although this would have been scant consolation for the Imlachs’ as it was awarded posthumously.

Perhaps the biggest shock of the book is that the author is a non-football convert and is best known for his television commentary on American Football and the Tour De France. Consequently, it is written with detachment - exposing the ritual, tribalism and absurdity of football culture. We learn that being the son of a player isn’t that glamorous. It just means moving home constantly and often at short notice, donning a different coloured shirt and adapting lyrics of football chants to fit the most recent club. Similarly, we are given various insights into the realities of being a player which are rarely covered in the media, such as the discomfort his father felt on kneeling down to switch television channels in the family home – a throwback to a less than satisfactory cartridge operation. This is perhaps what makes the book such essential reading as it is free of the biased cliché ridden accounts which plague this particular genre, yet provides enough anecdotes to fuel any supporters hunger.

At the end of the day Stuart Imlach is endemic of most footballers in that he simply wanted to play the beautiful game, be it amateur or professional. The fame and trappings are merely an occupational hazard, more important to fans than the players. When the playing career finishes so to goes the structure, order and ritual which makes up everyday. One needs look no further than Gazza to see what can happen in a worst case scenario.

According to the author there can be no more working class heroes as football has dramatically changed beyond recognition. Gone are the days when players took up second jobs to make a living, walked to the ground with fans or were treated like livestock by despotic chairmen. The culmination of the Bosman ruling, Rupert Murdoch and his Sky television network and an ever expansive media has resulted in the celebrification of football players who earn more in a day than Imlach snr was ever likely to earn in his whole career. It is this ever growing divide between player and fan, rich and poor which leaves the reader feeling culturally, historically and sportingly enlightened.

Rating: 5

James Walker website
Random House website

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