FROM THE BACK PAGE TO THE FRONT ROOM
By Roger Domenghetii
Books about football are a difficult proposition since sport is an activity that you do or watch, rather than think about. You can report the result of matches and even describe some of the action in print, but it does not really stack up against television (or even radio) as Roger Domenghetti candidly admits. In one of the many terrific and well-told inside-the-machine stories which illuminate this book, he tells of how he and his fellow soccer hacks were covering a live match between Newcastle and Bolton from the press box. The TV feed went down, the monitors blanked out. A goal was scored, but the hacks (including the author himself) had to form a committee to decide who scored it. The action leading up to the goal was a blur, and there was no replay available. They were screwed.
The impact first of newspapers and then of television (and the internet) on football is the central theme of the book. Each chapter deals with a different topic. It is thus really a series of mini-books within a book with developments in television, politics, literature, technology tracked on parallel lines in dedicated chapters.
This means that the book does not tell a single story, and it is very wide in scope, with an unfortunate element of over-reach or over-ambition. References range from Charles Darwin and George Orwell to Greavsie: The Autobiography (2013). As a result the focus is a bit variable. One minute we zoom out to see a very wide picture indeed, for example: “It’s a long path from Beowulf to Roy of the Rovers, but it’s one that’s been taken by the heroic figure in English popular culture”, then we zoom in to the microscopic level with several pages (fascinating) on the business negotiations which have lead to pay TV’s domination of the sport, or the evolution of live online betting.
Likewise many popular talking points, such as the problem of why watching the England national team is almost always disappointing, are mixed with – for example – a fairly details exposition of the mechanics of a non-football related coup in Hungary in the 1950s (The Hungarian Farmers Party apparently got 70% of the vote, but their leaders ended up in jail or something similar). The Beowulf and Ye Olde English heroism section goes on for pages, and even has explanatory footnotes about ancient Scandinavian patronymic traditions, and these are pretty detailed too. All of this seems to me to be the weakest aspect of the book – a slight feel of struggling to fill out the word count in the less meaty chapters (so they are of similar length). To me, this is the literary equivalent of dribbling the ball up to the corner flag in the last few minutes aiming for a 0-0 draw for 90 minutes when both sides would be happy enough with the draw.
And that is a shame. Because where the book is good, which is most of it, it is really good. The chapter on the rise “and fall” of the English sporting press is as good as it gets in terms of newspaper history – meticulously researched and sourced, and strong on good anecdotes which zip along at a good pace, even though much is based on secondary sources. Nothing wrong with that. The weaving together the disparate histories of newspapers, sports administration and the betting industry is done with skill and is extremely useful.
The chapter on betting is fascinating, and emphasizes the impact the betting industry has had on the development of the sport. The accepted view amongst critics of the “football industry” is that the game was essentially bought by television and re-themed as a bloodless, greed-based TV gameshow. Domeneghetti goes along with this conventional wisdom, but emphasizes that there were plenty of people at all levels who were happy to sell out. The new insight is the importance of the betting industry in this process, especially before the launch of the national lottery. This chapter on betting is one of the strongest in the book. I learned for example that the man who invented online betting was a former IT bloke from the government phone-tapping centre, GCHQ. This chapter alone is worth the price of admission.
The chapter on fan-generated media (fanzines in the 90s and online forums now) is weaker and a bit dated. He notes that the Manchester United fanzine “Red Issue” has ceased publication in print, because the producers were “sick of the bullshit” flowing from the commercialization of their club. But the fanzine was the focal point for the foundation of the fan-owned protest/tribute club FC United of Manchester. It is still going strong online, with 13,000 threads and half a million posts. FC United is an amazing success story, and the fan-owned club movement (Wimbledon, Portsmouth, Exeter, Wycombe Wanderers) sprang directly from the fanzines and/or online media set up and consumed by fanatics and activists. The central issue of this book – the relationship between TV, the newspapers and the sport – is still central to the FC United story. Fans of the new club boycott FA cup games when kick off is changed to suit TV and chant for hours from the terrace about the loathing of Sky TV. This is a strange omission and a treatment of this topic would have made a very good book even better.
One last objection. The title is terrible: FROM THE BACK PAGE TO THE FRONT ROOM. I have written here mainly for search engine optimization purposes. Has anyone had a front room in living memory. I think front rooms were abolished at about the same time as the UK joined the European Economic Community. mere co-incidence? I do recall as a child my parental home (two up, two down terraced house) had a “front room” which was kept pristine and was used only on special occasions. Our television set (basically displaying no live football on this until the 1980s) was kept in the squalor of the backroom, where the newspapers were also read (including the Football Pink) and then re-deployed for a variety of purposes.
This said, if you want a quick and accessible overview of the history of football and sports reporting this labour of love is the go-to option and I suspect it will remain so for many years to come.