Tuesday, July 31, 2007
Foot-Lit, Part 2
2. Matthew Hall, The Away Game
Just to avoid any confusion, I’m referring here to the original version of this book, published in 2000, rather than the updated version (one of the innumerable stocking-fillers churned out in the period surrounding the 2006 World Cup).
The book is essentially an account of the adventures of Australian players in Europe, from pioneers like Joe Marston, who turned out for Preston North End in the 1950s, right through to the likes of Harry Kewell and Mark Viduka.
The danger of such a book is that the stories might appear barely distinguishable after a while. Yet Hall manages, partly by refusing to observe a strict chronological order and partly by not concentrating solely on the “superstars”, to keep the tales intriguing and varied.
Indeed, some of the more interesting chapters are those dealing with lesser-known players, like the adventurous Andrew Bernal (who subsequently worked as David Beckham’s assistant in Madrid), and Jon Brady, who received his fair share of the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune before settling down at a lower-league English club.
Hall writes playfully and well, occasionally letting his own personality intrude, but usually so as to enhance the narrative. And when it comes to the players whose peregrinations he outlines, he consistently focuses on the personalities rather than the statistics.
Intriguing characters emerge: the warm-hearted Adrian Alston, who managed to rebuild his life after football and business had turned sour for him. The headstrong John Filan, unwilling part-instigator of the Stewart Report and prophet without honour in his own country. And, perhaps the most interesting of all, the hard-nosed Barry Silkman, agent for many Australian players. The chapter dealing with Silkman is the only proper, sustained portrait of a football agent – his methods, his motivations, his background – that I’ve ever read.
In a way, the book’s centre of gravity is that catastrophic evening in Melbourne in November 1997. Everybody has their say: Steve Horvat manfully tries to make sense of it all, Aurelio Vidmar recalls exploding at his family when they brought the game up at a get-together, and Terry Venables admits that the evening still haunts him.
And in the book’s most poignant moment, Hall describes the effect the fateful Iran game had on a long-term Socceroo aficionado:
Football mattered to Harry Bowman when he hauled himself from his crappy wooden seat that night, even though he felt that a little bit of himself had just died. It mattered as he walked out of the MCG into the cool night air, away from the buzzing crowd and the shining lights and the hooting airhorns. And it mattered as he walked through the trees and into the darkness, where he burst into uncontrollable and unrestrained tears.
I wonder where Harry Bowman was on the 16th of November 2005.
The Away Game is a fascinating, informative read.
I like the fact that the author himself stated that his initial idea was merely a fairly standard story of Aussie players trying to make a name for themselves overseas. Somehow, their overseas 'escapes' almost represent Australian football's dark core, with many of the players' stories being intertwined with the grubby politics of the game. The chapter on Labbo was one for the ages. This was more than a book IMO, and something of a crusade which represented many thousands of fans' frustrations with the game we love so much.
I was extremely disappointed with the 2nd Edition tho. It struck me as nothing more than Mr. Hall cashing in on our WC qualification.
For awhile I've been writing something about the last few years of primarily the Socceroos and The Away Game probably encouraged me to do it more...seriously. It was heartening to read a publication on Oz football that's balanced, informative and avoids all the awful generalisations, personal crusades and self-importance or glorification of Oz football.
I very much enjoyed the book and felt it helped me get a much better insight into the different Australian footballer's characters. It definitely doesnt come across as having an agenda or anything which is why i enjoyed it so much.
In fairness to Matt Hall, he was far from the only one doing this.
The grand prize for the rush-produced, atrociously edited and basically pointless stocking-filler goes to that "One Fantastic Goal"...with the Guus biography not far behind. Les Murray's autobiog may have been released a bit opportunistically, but at least it was decently written (if, again, very badly edited).
The TV documentary, which was based on the book, was also in the works way before qaulification.
A season is a long time in football and the there were many stories that had been untold between 2000 and 2006. That was the genesis for a second edition.