David Waugh reviews Harry Pearson’s latest football book
If you sleep with someone, don’t read this book in bed. “I was just nodding off then,” my wife will grumble as the bed shakes for the fourth time that night (no, come on, you’re better than that!) and I try to suppress laughter. “It’s your fault,” I say, “You gave it to me for my birthday. Just listen to this…”
Harry Pearson’s sequel to The Far Corner has appeared 26 years on from the much-loved first book, and has all the same qualities: humour, interesting titbits of information about football, anger at some aspects of the modern game, and endearing insights into football and life in the North East.
I reckon I bought copies of The Far Corner for at least six friends and relations and I have two copies myself, just in case I can’t find one in an emergency. Even my football-hating, sleep-deprived wife enjoyed reading it and went on to buy Pearson’s other books, all of which are dog-eared from re-reading.
I barely knew the North East when I first read The Far Corner, even though my father was born in Chester-le-Street and my grandparents lived there until the local pit closed and they moved to Armthorpe in the 1920s. Now, having worked in Durham for ten years, I’ve visited the venues Pearson described, and understand how cold it is in Tow Law in April and how beautiful so much of the countryside is, especially now that much of the industry which once sustained the region has disappeared.
In both books, each of Pearson’s chapters focuses on a visit to a match, usually in the Northern League, but the emphasis is on the journey, the towns, the grounds and the people he meets, with the actual games being described only briefly. The books are littered with witty observations and encounters with interesting characters. Pearson shows in The Farther Corner just how much football has changed since 1994 – back when the first major TV deal with BSkyB brought clubs £191.5 million, compared to the £4.4 billion of their most recent deal (supporters of Bury and Macclesfield must be dancing in the streets!) Even at ‘non-league’ level, finance has changed, as an extract of a conversation with the manager of a Northern League club shows:
‘“These fucking young players,” he said. “They’ve started coming in with agents. Agents! I had one last week, he says, “What are you offering my client?” I says, “Fifty a week and fish and chips after home matches.” He says, “We want seventy.” I says, “He can have sixty but he’s not getting curry sauce.”’
There are tales of the heyday of north-eastern football, including the fascinating story of Jack Greenwell, a miner, who played for Crook Town before emigrating to Spain where he helped set up a football team: Barcelona. He brought Crook Town to Spain for three tours and they played Barcelona ten times, winning two, drawing four and losing four. Greenwell went on to play for and then manage Barcelona, and is credited with introducing their traditional passing style at a time when English football shunned passing in favour of dribbling.
Greenwell subsequently managed Spain, Peru and Colombia, and he also guested for West Auckland, who won the inaugural Sir Thomas Lipton World Cup in 1909 and retained the trophy in 1911, beating Juventus 6-1 in the final. You might’ve seen the film about their triumphs starring Dennis Waterman, Nigel Hawthorne and Tim Healy, and in the 1990s I took my young family to see the trophy in the West Auckland Working Men’s Club – a good job I did; it was stolen in 1994 and hasn’t been seen since.
As a lover of ‘non-league’ football who has visited several grounds in the North East, many of which used to attract regular four-figure crowds, I empathised with Pearson’s view that these days many football fans are ‘epicureans’ who “have become so used to the Heston Blumenthal-style fare served up at places like St James’ Park, the Stadium of Light and the Riverside that they would rather starve than tuck into the game’s equivalent of a chip butty…”.
Reading Pearson’s accounts, and my own experiences of night matches at places like Spennymoor, Willington and Bishop Auckland, suggests they are missing something. The standard of football is generally high and even attracts ex-pros who’ve played at the highest level. I’ve seen Julio Arca run South Shields’ midfield, and Pascal Chimbonda, formerly of top clubs like Tottenham and …er…Rovers, played for Washington.
I’ve already bought three copies of this book as Christmas presents and will probably buy more. The chapters are brilliant, but I’m glad that I actually looked at the index for once, as it includes listings like,
Twat, Welsh Linesman likened to, 20
Pearson’s engaging style is relentless and encapsulated in his comments about a recent manager of his club, Middlesbrough. “Tony Pulis’s grim reign ground remorselessly on, delivering a headbutt to hope and a dead leg to joy.” The Farther Corner is the best book about football since The Far Corner, and my wife is delighted that I‘ve read it. As she can now get a proper night’s sleep.
by David Waugh
The Farther Corner by Harry Pearson is published by Simon & Schuster. Please support your local independent bookseller by ordering it from them.
This review first appeared in print in issue 102 of popular STAND fanzine, published in December 2020.