Hatters, Railwaymen and Knitters: A Review

Johnny Nicholson takes a look through a new book detailing football in the provinces. Author Daniel Gray is a fellow Boro boy and shares his fascination with detail...

Last Updated: 15/11/13 at 13:01

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While the upper echelons of football continue to play out their insanely monied soap opera to an ever-more cynical and disgruntled audience paying big money to sit in a plastic seat like they're at some sort of open-air theatre, lower down the pyramid, football goes on largely as it ever has done.

There are an almost infinite amount of levels to football in Britain. The country is soaked in football, so much so that each region will have many divisions, the bottom of which will be anything up to 20 or more or more promotions away from the Premier League. The East Riding County League alone has seven divisions.

We have the best attended lower leagues in Europe or possibly in the world. While the Premier League pre-occupies the media, every week many hundreds of thousands of people go and watch live football which isn't expensive and which is like football pretty much always has been. It's local and small scale and inexpensive and it's this culture which Daniel Gray celebrates in his new book Hatters, Railwaymen and Knitters: Travels Through England's Football Provinces. Starting off in his home town of Middlesbrough, Daniel travels hither and indeed thither as far south at Newquay and as far north as Carlisle in search of the English football experience. Recognising the interconnectedness of town and team, he offers social histories of the places he visits for the weekend, coupling them with droll travel writing.

For many of us, football at the highest level is a different sport; a separate country which entertains us but doesn't press the same cultural and emotional buttons as the community-based clubs you find as you slide down the pyramid. If you've never been to Brunton Park in Carlisle for example, it could not be more different than going to see a big club like Chelsea or Arsenal. It's almost a different language culturally. In some ways it doesn't matter as much and yet because of that, somehow, it matters much, much more.

Like Daniel, I was imbued with this sense of local club culture at Middlesbrough which, perhaps remarkably, is one of the loftier peaks in the football mountain range, at least compared to nearby yet traditional old clubs like Billingham Synthonia to name just one. But the Boro is really a proper community club which still draws a lot of its playing resources from the local community, not just in the first team but just as importantly, right through the club to youth level. It is an august institution which understands its role amongst the people of the region. As Dan says, it may well be a club now down to its core support but that's the case for all small clubs really. Places like Crewe or Luton or Burnley don't have tourist fans, they only have core support. These things are worth celebrating and Daniel's book is a celebration really - a journey into the collective heartlands of the game to where its roots and its guts lie.

And he finds it in some degree of good health and more importantly still, finds much of what is great about the country in a sense of community and civic pride. In this context, football clubs are important as a cultural focus and as a place for people to meet. In an increasingly fractured society, where communities become fragmented by vicious economic fault lines, lower-league football remains a place where we can all afford the ticket price to rub shoulders with people from all walks of life and backgrounds. In that sense, football is a cohesive force in society, a glue that holds places together.

If, like me, you find that the joy of life is often in the detail, in the small and in the offbeat and in the limitless creativity of fans to entertain themselves and others whilst being mildly diverted by a sport, you'll love Daniel's book and I heartily recommend you pick up a copy as an antidote to the cold cynicism that pervades the peak of the football pyramid. Worth buying if only to be reminded of the highly ironic Boro chant, directed at Newcastle fans, 'have you ever had a salad, have you f*ck'.

Buy Daniel's book here.

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