Kicking Around With Gary Imlach
Broadcaster Gary Imlach recently won the William Hill Sports Book of the Year for his account of his father’s footballing career in the 1950s - My Father and other Working-Class Football Heroes.
Imlach recounts a period when footballers had to have another trade, such as being a mechanic or plumber, in order to make ends meet. His father, Stewart, was a fleet-footed winger for Nottingham Forest in the 1959 FA Cup final and also represented Scotland four times in the 1958 World Cup – even though he was never awarded a cap as the appearances were not against ‘Home Nation’ countries.
A supposedly golden era is described in personal detail as Imlach recounts his father’s rise and decline.
What prompted you to write the book?
"The realisation after my dad died that I knew scandalously little about his football life beyond the highlights of an FA Cup Final and a World Cup. I think growing up with those peaks of achievement as part of the family history handed down to me and my brothers lulled me into thinking that I knew far more than I did. And our conversations, like many I suppose between father and son, never got beyond the week's football results and the state of his golf game."
After years as a broadcaster, was writing a book difficult?
"It was difficult, but not because of the years I've spent in television. In some ways the process was liberating. Television takes so many people and such a lot of setting up just to do badly - there's so much to sort out before you ever get to the question of whether it's any good or not - that it was a relief only to have myself to worry about."
How did you go about researching the book?
"First I camped out at the British Newspaper Library in London and read through the contemporary reports of my father's career. It was a strangely gripping process that I lived almost in real time, rooting for him furiously through games and seasons whose outcome I already knew perfectly well. Then I went round the country visiting as many of his old friends and teammates as I could find, having the conversations with them that I never had with him."
What strikes you as the major difference between today's footballers and the players of the 1950s?
"The disparity in what they earn, obviously, and the loss of the rootedness in the community that players had then. Players were serfs under the old retain-and-transfer system and no one would wish the old days back, but one consequence was a greater bond between the men who played the game and those who watched it; they were essentially the same people living together in the same communities. If footballers were venerated then it was from close range."
What other biographical books about sports figures have your enjoyed, and why?
"I'm actually not a great reader of sports books, and the ones that stand out are about groups rather than individuals: Hunter Davies's 1971 football classic The Glory Game, an account of a season with Tottenham Hotspur which no writer now could hope to rival because he'd never be granted the access; H.G Bissinger's Friday Night Lights, which goes even deeper into high school football in Texas than Davies did into professional soccer. I didn't go to see the film because I couldn't imagine how drama could improve on the documentary brilliance of the source material; and Tim Parks’ A Season with Verona, an outsider’s journey with a group who are themselves Italian football’s ultimate outsiders, the pariah fans of his adopted Italian hometown team."
How much notice do you take of sport's peripheral figures? The players that make up the team but aren't really in the spotlight.
"Well, they're often the key to understanding the game aren't they? Or at least they give you some humanity to grasp onto, below the level of the marquee names who've already crossed over into the mainstream marketing stratosphere. Long-snappers in the NFL fascinate me. Even in a game built on specialisation these are men who've carved out the smallest of niches and can safely occupy them for years after their more high profile teammates have retired or limped out of the game on reconstructed knee ligaments."
Which sports figures get written about too much and who doesn't get written about enough?
"I think there's probably a richer seam of material among sport's supporting cast than is currently being taken advantage of. He's a friend, so I should declare an interest, but Matt Rendell's account of the centenary Tour de France, A Significant Other, is a brilliant example of what can be done. The book tells the well known story of Lance Armstrong's fifth consecutive Tour win - but as experienced by one of his lieutenants, the Colombian rider Victor Hugo Peña. In the process it recasts the whole of cycling history as a saga of self-sacrifice and cooperation between rivals instead of the one-dimensional tales of individual heroics we're often fed."
Are you planning write another book after the success of this one?
"I'm tempted to pack it in immediately so as not to spoil my record. I don't know is the short answer; I've got a couple of ideas, but I'm wary of launching off into another book project simply because I can, rather than because I'm driven to."
A beautifully written and moving account of the author’s search for the man his father was, and the life he led as a well-known footballer.
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