It is fashionable, in the wake of all those rowers and cyclists and runners, abled and otherwise, who do what they do for something — glory, pride, joy of physical exertion? — other than for money, to disparage football, and to regard it as somehow vulgar and its practitioners over-indulged.
Despite the fairytale exploits of Chelsea and Manchester City at the end of last season, football is seen as having a lot of catching up to do. It is, after all, almost impossible not to be cynical about a sport that rewards its players so extravagantly. This book reminds us that football too has its virtues.
Duncan Hamilton’s father, James, a lifelong Newcastle supporter, a miner, who died in 1997, did not at all begrudge modern players their huge rewards, but he demanded from the greatest players not only a level of skill far above the average, but a demeanour to match. It was a belief, like many other beliefs and values, that his son inherited.
This marvellous and affecting book, which is about love and fatherhood and history and manners as much as it is about football, records the ways in which the lives and exploits of gifted players and managers intersected, usually symbolically, but often in the flesh, with Hamilton’s father’s life, and his grandfather’s, and his own.
The players include Jackie Milburn, the ‘altruistic Everyman’ who hated fame, but whose nine-foot bronze statue stands in Northumberland Street in Newcastle. Then there is Duncan Edwards, after whom the author was named, who taught himself to type, and wrote a book, Tackle Soccer This Way, in which he demanded that a losing team leave the field ‘with dignity’, and that players should ‘never argue with the referee’. Edwards died, aged 21, in the Munich air crash that killed so many members of the all-conquering ‘Busby Babes’, the Manchester United of the late 1950s.
Another Babe was Bobby Charlton, blessed with ‘duty, chivalry and modesty’, the virtues, Hamilton records, that his father most cherished (one thinks of Chaucer’s ‘verray, parfit gentil knight’), second only to Milburn in James’s estimation, and somehow managing to shine even in the million-watt glare of George Best’s genius.
Charlton and Edwards were both Manchester United players. ‘Don’t be lazy,’ said Hamilton to his son, ‘never miss the chance to see a great player.’ For although James Hamilton was a fan, and a man for whom Newcastle was home (despite having been born in Scotland and having brought up his son in Nottingham), one of the values he passed on to his son was the willingness to give credit where it was due.
Hamilton is a first-rate pen-portraitist. Brian Clough had ‘a core of principled kindness’; George Best ‘had skill to burn and so he burnt it’; of Jim Baxter, ‘a pass from him was like turning a key’; Bobby Moore was ‘gracefully languorous’. This skill was perhaps learned from his father, who told his credulous son that John Charles had a forehead made of brick, that Tom Finney had magnetic feet and goalkeeper Ronnie Simpson arms twice as long as his body.
A melancholy pervades the book. The early deaths of Edwards and Bobby Moore (at 51, of cancer), the declines into alcoholism of Jim Baxter and Brian Clough and Albert Johanneson — the first black player to appear in the FA Cup Final — the onset of Parkinson’s in Ray Kennedy, the sadness of Bill Shankly without his beloved Liverpool to manage, lead us subliminally to the unexpected Afterword.
For this is not really a football book at all, but a love song. Time’s arrow means that sons get to write about fathers but fathers don’t get to write about sons. Luckily, fathers don’t have to, because fathers know their children, but often children who write memoirs of their fathers, in the manner of Edmund Gosse or even Blake Morrison, fail to avoid seeming smugly cleverer than their parent. Not here. Father and son had only football in common, but it was enough, and it speaks well for the game, and even better for the taciturn and good man who was the author’s father.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated 15 September 2012