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Book Review: The Beautiful Game? David Conn

When I first picked up David Conn’s state of the nation take on football, I was looking for answers. Conn’s journey back through football offered so much more.

Like Conn, I’m a Manchester City fan, but I haven’t quite reconciled myself as well as my fellow Salfordian has with the current condition of the game, let alone City’s role in changing its landscape.

The longstanding joke is football only began in 1992, or at least statistics only seem to date that far back. The time before was merely a hooliganistic, unorganised, non-inclusive game, for the working class man only. The bright lights of Sky’s broadcasting the Premier League have been enough to dazzle and distract us.

Born in 1987, one year after Hillsborough, and attending my first game in an all seater Maine Road, the Kippax looming large, the football I was introduced to was what I took the game to be. Little did I know just a few years before, the radical restructuring of the Premier League was a shifting of the sands, moving away from a sport, despite its flaws, that was played on a much leveller field.

The book starts out at Arsenal, Conn applying vivid brushstrokes to the pages transporting you to the famed and prestigious marble halls of Highbury. Marble vestibule may be more accurate, an immediate visual metaphor we are given by Conn; the Premier League maybe isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. As eager as Conn himself was to take a wonder through the halls on a certain trip to the ground, a no-nonsense security guard had other ideas.

The structure of the book is well thought out, starting at Arsenal and taking us back before Herbert Chapman’s days at the helm. 1992 isn’t the line in the sand for football’s finances going wrong, it’s just the acceleration point. Immediately we’re shown, through Arsenal talking their way into the top flight back in 1919 and upping sticks north of the river, money makes the game go round.

Arsenal are revisited time and again; David Dein’s role in the breakaway is an example of the conflicts of interest that existed in football during the early nineties, holding power in the FA, Premier League and also one of football’s elite clubs. Dein isn’t the only one, alongside Ken Bates at Chelsea and many more. Dein and Bates, you may say, were best of enemies, unified in their avarice and shared reluctance to see any crumbs fall from the top flight table.

Following an explanation of Tottenham’s float on the stock market, circumnavigating FA rules around director dividends, we are introduced to the Hill-Woods, former owners of Arsenal, who migrated from Glossop Town in the late twenties to capitalize on the opportunities a club in the Big Smoke might present.

The story of the Hill-Wood’s sale of Arsenal draws us also to Manchester United, where too the Edwards’ family made vast fortunes from the club. That these two outfits have had such success in the last 25 years is well explained by Conn. Both were already set up with notable gate receipts in comparison to most other clubs, and strong sides to boot. As prize money was distributed based on league position, both were well placed to establish a duoply that could only be broken by foreign investment. Only Leicester have proven to be the the exception since.

Whilst United and Arsenal shared the spoils of silverware for the first fifteen years or so of the Premier League, a good number of other founder clubs profited whilst many others would yo-yo up and down the pyramid. Those yo-yo clubs act as submarines for the purpose of the book, taking us on a deeper dive of the Football League, and the financial distress many clubs are in, in large part due to opportunistic directors looking to emulate the savvy accounting and corporate structuring tricks of the top flight clubs. York springs to mind, but more so Bury who eventually failed last year. For Conn, the writing was on the Gigg Lane walls it seems.

Many a Sunday I roamed green patches of grass in the Bury area, and made the net bulge on several occasions just over Manchester Road on the Redvales playing fields. As such, hearing of Bury’s demise was a knife through the heart, reading about the previous dices with football death in this great book, were a twist of it.

All the while this vertical up and down journey of both the country and the pyramid goes on, we are taken back to Hillsborough frequently; one of the country’s worst sporting disasters in history, alongside the fire at Bradford (also explored). The word ‘negligence’ wouldn’t cover any of Sheffield Wednesday or the FA; both failing to keep a ground to safe standards or regulate it.

For many years the media has focussed on the legal battle between the victim’s families and the police force, but Conn leave us asking two other major questions; what of the role and responsibilities (around the hosting of the match itself and since to the families) should Sheffield Wednesday (whose ground wasn’t up to safety standard) and The FA (who allocated the fixture)?

Additionally; how just six years after this disaster, could the FA be so short sighted as to allow the breakaway and transfer of power to an elite few to happen.

The book is as true a story of football as one can read. Fact based, it pulls no punches, delivering them with fact, thorough research and flourished writing.

My next David Conn books are on their way.

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