- Football Nation: Sixty Years of the Beautiful Game by Andrew Ward and John Williams
Football Nation is a delightful read. Well-respected football sociologist John Williams and freelance writer Andrew Ward have delivered an enjoyable popular history of football in postwar Britain. Both have collaborated on earlier oral histories and football books, marshaling interviews and off-beat stories that please the enthusiast. In this collection, the authors’ stated goal is to create “readable tales about real football people while retaining the integrity of our original research” (p. 4). In this they succeed, providing accessible profiles of the major events in postwar football while avoiding academic eccentricities that would be misplaced in this volume.
The book is organized chronologically in six parts, each part covering roughly a decade and made up of five to eight chapters which focus on important moments or topics in each period. Each part receives a brief introduction, describing the football industry during the period, discussing football’s place in broader leisure and entertainment patterns, and imparting the trajectory of change mapped out in the subsequent pages. But the chapters are the real amusement, told with witty touch and a penchant for romanticized storytelling. Some cover significant moments that shocked the football world, like the 1958 Munich plane crash that killed twenty Manchester United players and staff, or the fatal Heysel and Hillsborough stadium disasters. Others are far more celebratory, like the insightful chapter on England’s 1966 World Cup triumph. Many focus on traditions and customs within the game, such as the rise of “kop choirs” and team activities like riding the bus or joking in the dressing-room. Still others manage to chart the commercialization of football through the installation of all-seater stadiums and the emergence of the Premier League.
Throughout the book, several threads emerge that hint at the larger literatures produced by historians and sociologists to discuss broader transitions and patterns in the sport and its followers. This reader found the chapters that discussed the transformation of the sport and its relationship to supporters to be well-written and clear introductions to broader issues of fandom and the growing exclusions of some supporters. For instance, several chapters dealing with fan violence, both at home and abroad, introduce the audience to the multiple and often contradictory origins and impulses behind the never-ending phenomenon. In doing so, Williams draws on his long-standing expertise as a sociologist to attempt a brief explanation but ultimately returns to the much safer position of storyteller. Williams also simplifies his earlier research on early African-Caribbean players on teams like Highfield Rangers and the responses to them by other English football teams and supporters. There’s also a heavy emphasis on the business of football, as the authors trace the industry’s ups and downs as a provider of increasingly commercialized leisure. The short but welcome chapter charting Wimbledon FC’s move to Milton Keynes in 2003 is an excellent case in point, stressing the multifarious forces that can uproot a community’s beloved club as if it were an American sporting franchise. The book ends [End Page 365] with an ambitious and winding essay on football and Englishness that attempts to make sense of the link between nationality and English society’s supposedly exceptional obsession with the sport in a few scant pages. This essay, like others, might be used to inspire classroom discussions in classes on British or sports history, as it piques interest and provides thoughtful questions, even if it cannot definitively provide answers.
For the academic reader, following the sources for each chapter and individual interviews is a bit difficult. There are no footnotes or endnotes, but a list of interviews and other consulted works for each chapter serves to give the reader some sense of where the authors found their gems, if not specific guidance on quotations or where interested researchers can look next. It is clear, though, that the authors collected extensive primary materials and catalogued early works on football constructed throughout their...