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My Father and Other Working-Class Heroes seeks to recreate a world that is alien to the sports fan of today. Though TV was making its first forays into sports broadcasting, and some of the first sporting superstars were emerging, the players themselves operated in a different world to today’s multi-millionaires. They lived in club housing, often in the same neighbourhoods as the fans who turned out to cheer them on. Some, like Gary Imlach’s father, trained part-time while they learned another trade. The maximum-wage structure limited the financial gains that any player could make out of the game; as such, many of the players continued their careers only through the love of the game, rather than in the search of one last big pay-day.
But this is not a nostalgic longing for a simpler time. Football had always provided a bond between Gary Imlach and his father. Stewart Imlach, in his day, had been a fine footballer – good enough to win the FA Cup with Nottingham Forest and to represent Scotland in the World Cup. Gary had been much like any other football-mad child in his youth, his football season lasting the year round, and holding out hope of a professional career. His temperament, though, let him down (brilliantly recalled in the book), and he embarked on a career as a sports broadcaster.
Many of the stories Imlach relates will be familiar to the sports fan – the rituals associated with watching a game, or the frustrations of following your side alone. Most touching of all, though, is the time where Imlach is watching the England-Germany game with his father. When England take the lead near the end of the first half, he jumps out of his seat in delight. His father, though similarly pleased at the goal, is pained by his son’s reaction. Dying of cancer, this is one of the last times they share each other’s company.
In looking through his father’s possessions after his death, Imlach realises how little he knew about his career. My Father and Other Working-Class Football Heroes, then, is a recounting of Stewart Imlach’s career, as his son travels around the country to meet with his old team-mates and reminisce about the old days. Yet there is a harsh realism about the book, too – the recollections of the team-mates are given to us first-hand, but set against the newspaper accounts that often highlight the passage of time. This occurs most vividly when Imlach speaks to the surviving members of the 1958 World Cup team; in their mind, Scotland get knocked out as the result of a freak passage of play, when a missed penalty is returned up the field instantly and a goal scored the other way. Imlach knows, however, that there were several minutes between the two instances.
Moreover, the book burns with an anger about the way that his father was treated throughout his career. Alongside the maximum wage structure, players operated under the ‘retain-and-transfer’ system, in which clubs owned the rights to their players in perpetuity – a closed-shop system, in effect, where those unhappy with the wages the club offered had the choice either to hold their tongue or find another career. Stewart Imlach was a clear victim of the policy; having wages cut on the whims of club bosses and shunted around from team to team when the owners felt that he could make more money. Another team-mate recalls how he sold his medals so that he could provide a lump sum for his children after his death. The money he raised – about £45,000 – is barely half a week’s wages for the best paid players today. In this light, the money made by the top players nowadays takes on a new light. While owners are making so much money out of the game, is it really unreasonable for players to take a fairer slice?
Interesting as Imlach’s recounting of his father’s career is, however, the strength of the book lies in its emotional appeal. He clearly regrets deeply the fact that he is only coming to know the full extent of his father’s life too late; that try as he might, he can never properly fill in the gaps that are left in the newspaper archives and the recesses of aging footballers’ minds. For Stewart Imlach reached the peak of his career just a few years too soon, just before the old regime came tumbling town. As the maximum wage was abolished, he was fighting a knee injury and struggling to extend his career even in the lower leagues. His international career was short-lived, seemingly because of an arbitrary quota imposed on players who played for English clubs. Imlach is painting a personal story of a forgotten world. The sporting culture of the post-war years is becoming ever more distant in the haze of commercial sponsorship, image rights, and constant TV exposure. But the personal story is just as valuable – and as time passes, our knowledge of that, too, fades.
It hardly needs me to sing the praises of this book – it won the William Hill Sports Book of the Year award in 2005, to an unusually appreciative reception from journalists. The accolades are well-deserved. It is an intriguing popular historical account of the 1950s and 1960s, and while the details are of particular interest to the football fan, it may well be of interest also to those who seek a stronger understanding of why sport occupies such a prominent place in parts of the individual and national psyche. Football was an integral part of the patchwork that linked the lives of Gary and Stewart Imlach. We may not be able to see the entire patchwork in My Father and Other Working-Class Football Heroes, but we should be very grateful that more of it has been revealed.
Edition shown: Yellow Jersey Press. Illustrated hardback. 2005. ISBN No. 978-0224072670. 288pp.