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Believe in the sign

12 March 07 words: James Walker
This book is a nod to the perverse seductive lure of following a bunch of losers with funny haircuts during the seventies

When I received this book for review I thought that Believe in the Sign was alluding to the abstract philosophy of the revered semiologist Roland Barthes but it turns out that it is the motto of Rochdale FC ‘Crede Signo’, a small northern town just off of the A680, exactly 99.9 miles from Nottingham. Hodkinson may not have denounced the death of the author like the French philosopher but he has certainly witnessed the death of his local club and home. This book is a nod to the perverse seductive lure of following a bunch of losers with funny haircuts during the seventies.

Hodkinson is a bit of a footballing connoisseur with many literary strings to his bow. A regular contributed to the broadsheets he has previously enjoyed commissioned residencies as Barnsley Life at the Top (1998) , Manchester City Blue Moon (1999) and Rochdale Life Sentence (2001). In addition his publishing company have recently released Hunter Davies’ hilarious collected ponderings in The Fan and The Second Half whilst salvaging such cult classics as Fred Eyre’s Kicked into Touch and Trevor Hoyle’s darkly sinister classic Rule of Night – which would make excellent further reading for those who can’t get enough of the grim seventies. All in all Hodkinson’s contribution to football means he will be stuffed on his death and affixed to the middle of the new Wembley arches. That’s if it is finished in time…

Firstly, we must congratulate the author on retaining his affiliation with his local club when weaker minded men would not have been able to resist assimilation into the Manchester United borg. I put this down to romance; ‘we are all the gutter’ wrote Oscar Wilde ‘it’s just some of us are looking at the stars.’ The knowledge that things can only get better is motivation enough to get through everyday. Unfortunately for Mark and the other Spotland faithful it doesn’t. But fear not, being the worst is kind of like being the best. It’s being average which is truly depressing. Perhaps because of this the book is littered with quirky anecdotes and a generally positive outlook when faced with adversity.

Failure is of course a highly valued British trait so losing against non-league teams made up of ‘plumbers and bricklayers who trained twice a week after work’ adds to this cultural myth. It’s like Eddie ‘the Eagle’ Edwards all over again. The book will strike a cord with many football fans in particular the frustration with fair-weather fans who only turn up to big games or when there is a rare winning streak. I should point out that a winning streak at Rochdale barely constitutes movement and is plurality in the loosest sense of the word. Having not been able to get a Forest v Chelsea ticket after being to away games in the pouring rain at Blackpool et al I know where he is coming from - and while we’re on the subject the same logic applies to part-time drinkers who clog up the local on New Years Eve...

The book is written as a series of flat paragraphs rather than a continuous narrative which allows the author to neatly juxtapose personal stories and events which mirror the fortunes of the club. This is done with a real eye for balance and allows for subtle reflections. So for example, Hodkinson describes some men in his local making fun of an odd character called Bert and then next we hear stories of violence on the terraces. This suggests that such attitudes are endemic, a cultural problem, and that the city versus united mentality transcends society as a whole.

In another instance we are told about Gilly, a phenomenal bullshitter, who has a tendency to over embellish everything. At first you think this is just a personal anecdote thrown in for the sake of it – and given the fortunes of the local club who can blame him for bullshitting when reality is so dull. But when juxtaposed against the death of Lesley Molseed it takes on a completely different context. Stefan Kiszko, a Polish immigrant who lived at home with his mother, was wrongly imprisoned for her murder. When the locals spread malicious rumours about Kisko ‘he used to catch dogs, chop them up and boil them in pans’ we see the tragic consequences of such uninformed gossip.

My only criticism of the book is I felt that the footnotes were unnecessary but this is only because the format of flat paragraphs works so well I felt it tended to disrupt this otherwise excellent structure. More than just a football book, Believe in the Sign is a culmination of memoir, nostalgia, history and social commentary with a bit of Elvis thrown in for good measures. Well done.

Vital Statistics
Pp: 203
Mark Hodkinson website
James Walker website

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