The First Good Books about Football – Soccer & Rugby Union


Bill Keeth clocks a terrific twosome emerging from the tunnel

It is fully fifty years and more since Yorkshireman David Storey wrote This Sporting Life, the first good book about Rugby League – and subsequently a great film, too, starring Richard Harris and Rachel Roberts. This film was one of four monochrome epics (Room at the Top, A Kind of Loving, Saturday Night Sunday morning were the other three) which encapsulate for all time that period in our post-War lives when television was black and white, a PC was a police constable (“Evenin’, all!”) and Blackberries (with a lower case “b”) were a gorgeous soft fruit unavailable in our back gardens but free for the taking by the roadside on any hike into Ashworth Valley or Derbyshire.

And now comes The Damned United, the first good book about Association Football, and arguably better as a film, starring as it does the multi-talented Michael Sheen as Brian Clough, former Derby County manager, and Timothy Spall as Peter Taylor, Cluffy’s invaluable assistant.

(See the illustration above, and see Wikipedia, please do, for an excellent précis of this epic tale of Association Football as it was played in the English First Division during the 1970s. That is to say, when “the beautiful game” was played by Derby County under Brian Clough, yet far too seldom by Leeds United under Don Revie, where “play the man not the ball” was ever the order of the day.)

The Damned United is written by another Yorkshire man, David Peace; and the film of the book is a veritable must-have DVD for any Englishman’s Christmas list always provided he be not irredeemably Sky Red.

The Damned United was shortlisted for the formerly Manchester-centric Portico Prize competition in 2008 but didn’t win it. This was due, I like to think, not to any suggestion that this is not top class fiction, but to the fact that a substantial chunk of The Damned United consists of swearwords which ricochet effluently and effervescently, so to speak, yet hardly efficaciously, around Elland Road and the County Ground throughout.

Because when it comes to affective fiction, swear words, if they are used at all, must be used sparingly; otherwise they lose their power to shock. And the expletives certainly lose their power to shock in The Damned United, becoming tedious in the extreme. Which is a real problem for the author (and for the reader, too) since no one can pretend that, in the heat of the game, the utterances of participating team members do not tend towards the robust rather than the rhetorical.

This problem apart, though, The Damned United by David Peace is a really good book. I would not go so far as to dub it “the great Association Football (Soccer) novel”. Nevertheless, this ground-breaking novel may fearlessly stake its claim to being such until the great book about Association Football makes its long overdue appearance – hopefully, on the volley.

Meanwhile, Lancastrian John Collier (Get in there!) from the village of Waddington near Clitheroe (Correct me if I’m wrong but didn’t ’60’s rock star Johnny Kidd appear at Waddington with the Pirates on the night he subsequently crashed and died near Radcliffe?) – yep, John Collier has self-published a truly impressive bit of narrative up and under with his first book, Tales of the Vale – an outrageously funny and information-packed account of Rugby Union as it is played at junior club level.

Sadly, the staunch Rugby Union enthusiast to whom I consigned my copy of Tales of the Vale for review over the summer, has so far contributed only the briefest of messages, as follows: “Funny in the extreme STOP Please await review STOP Must first dry trousers STOP”

So all you Rugby Union fans and players will just have to take the word of this consummate couch potato that Tales of the Vale is a truly enjoyable read – being well written, thought-provoking. The book employs, too, more than a soupçon of that drole narrative style which Sir Arthur Conan Doyle so skilfully brought to bear upon his hilarious tales of the French POW, Brigadier Gerard, whom his British captors ingenuously encouraged to join them for foxhunting and a game of cricket only to see him attack the fox and play the man when it came to cricket.

Tales of the Vale is a semi-autobiographical account of one fresh-faced lad’s initiation into the camaraderie of the amateur game. Stuffed full with clever little reminders of how life used to be at club level, each tale is related with dry humour and intellectual wit. The series of footnotes employed therein contribute a mirthful pseudo-academic air of reality to the text.

Anybody who has ever played or watched or been associated with Rugby Union at local level, must ensure they put this book on their list for Santa – or, should they lack family or friends who are susceptible to a subtle smack around the kisser, they must get hold of John Collier’s Tales of the Vale for themselves via Amazon, or direct from the author himself.* (Get in there!).

*To obtain your copy of Tales of the Vale visit or send a cheque for £12.50 (inc. p&p) to: Tales of the Vale Ltd., 5 Queensway, Waddington, Clitheroe BB7 3HL N.B. £1 from every book sold goes to the RFU Injuries Foundation

Bill Keeth’s books, Every Street in Manchester ISBN 1859880649 & Write It Self-Publish It Sell It ISBN 97809558863 are available from Amazon and all good book shops. Bill can also be contacted via his website,

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