“The whole appearance and manner of professional football have been transformed, not to everybody’s liking. The youthfulness of a team, as a positive policy rather than as an enforced result of a high incidence of injury, is now a commonplace; the game is played at sprinter’s pace; it is more explosive than it was; players are cunning veterans by their mid-twenties; referees are frequently treated with undisguised contempt; managers grow more tense and anxious by the month; the conflict between the younger and older generations, which is one of the major contemporary tensions in society generally, is given emphatic expression in football. Even boards of directors are beginning to get younger.”
So wrote Arthur Hopcraft over 50 years ago in his 1968 timeless classic The Football Man.
I picked up a copy after seeing it referred to on more than one occasion as the best football book ever written. After such billing, I fully expected to be disappointed. I was not.
Hopcraft was a journalist and screenwriter, born in 1932, who started out reporting on football at the age of 17 and by the mid 1960s was a football writer for the Observer, granting him access to everyone involved in the game. He was also an avid football fan since childhood. These two points combined are what make the book the special read that it is.
Football Man is broken down into nine chapters, each focusing on a different component of the game: the player; the manager; the director; the referee; the fan; the amateur; football and the press; football and foreigners; the future.
Some of these chapters are then broken down further into sub-chapters, each focussing on a particular personality or event. Each chapter is as fascinating as it is beautifully written. Hopcraft has that ability to paint the most vivid picture with a sentence of so few words that it seems effortless, similar to Orwell in his non-fiction books. This is evident right from the very beginning of the book, which kicks off with Hopcraft sitting in a car with an 18-year old George Best, while “a thin old man with stubble on his chin and a neck like a cockerel’s” battles the wind and rain to run up to the car, rattle on the windows and shout “I was a referee, you know,” desperate for any form of acknowledgement from his young hero. Best simply smiles gently at him and says, “Cheerio,” and they drive away.