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Sport Book Chat: Daniel Gray

Paul Grech Monday, January 27, 2014 , , , ,
One of the questions that I was asked during my Italian ‘O’ Level oral was to locate ‘Lazio’ in Italy.  Given that most of my knowledge of Italy was based on what I had read in the various football magazine, it was somewhat obvious that my reply would be “in Rome”.  After all, the Rome derby was played between AS Roma and Lazio.  Thankfully, I met a somewhat lenient examiner who guided me into providing the right answer (for anyone interested: Lazio is the region in which Rome is located).

Time has afforded me the luxury to learn a bit more about the world but, even so, a lot of my geographical knowledge is linked with my knowledge of football.  When I hear the name of a city, my thoughts instinctively turn to that place’s football team and what I know about it.

I know that I’m not the only one who does that which is why it is somewhat surprising that it has taken so long for someone to come up with a book that mashes together travel and football writing in one book.

That someone is Daniel Gray who, in writing his book ‘Hatters, Railwaymen and Knitters’, has taken  a journey around England looking at a number at football clubs and the cities that host them.  In the process, he manages to piece together a picture of England, its beauty and the inherent importance of its most popular sport.

How did the idea of the book come about?
Things collided: Ten years of living away from England in Scotland; turning 30; missing England and its football (to me, it's greatest export, though not in a Graeme-le-Saux-visits-China-way); not being sure if either matched up to the silhouette I had of them; the feeling that my generation - the one that stood on terraces and grew up in the Sky Sports era, the one that has children with mobile phones and Grandads that fought in World War Two - had something to say. And, of course, the itch to write, to entertain and hopefully to craft words which cause laughter, nostalgia and homely sadness.

Have you always been interested in visiting different grounds?  Would you consider yourself a groundhopper?
I lack the absolute dedication of a groundhopper, plus I like to get knee-deep in the places I go rather than tick them off. Thus, I'd spend a weekend in Watford then three weeks researching its history and that of the football club, ditto the rest. I want to be immersed in them, to try and do them proud where others do them down. And yes, I've had that desire to visit grounds since my teens, though not just for the match - for the journey, the town, the architecture - which is reflected now in this book. Less and less do the grounds appeal to me given modern design, but the gems are still there...

What attracted you to each place you visited?
I was governed in the first place by a rule: all twelve finished first, second and bottom in the Football League in 1981/82, the season I was born. I substituted the wonderful city of Liverpool and its red club because I didn't feel there was much to add to the story there, and went instead to Newquay, who as everyone knows won the South Western League in 1981/82. The rule worked stupendously. In every place I found something, whether in the here and now or in its history. I fell in love a lot of times, and realised that it's the small places, the patchwork, that makes England what it was, is and will be.

Would you say that this is a football book with a lot of travel writing or a travel book that has a lot of football in it?
A travel book with a lot of football in it, and I wish I'd thought of that line for the marketing!

At times you seemed surprised at the beauty of the places you visited.  Was that the case?
Yes. Because these places have been sold down the river so often, been depicted badly elsewhere, I really didn't expect to find redeeming features in every one of them. Get out there; be a tourist in Ipswich.

How important is football to the community today?
More important than ever, and that despite everything the Premier League, Sky etc have done to make it into a global commodity. I say this because in an England of flux, where there is not much to belong to any more, where families live hundreds of miles apart, football unites people and communities like nothing else. Go to Chester and experience that at its very greatest. We need football, it is social cohesion, it is identity.

Given that fans of the bigger clubs talk about introducing B teams, which would effectively push smaller clubs out of the league system, do you think that there is enough appreciation of the devastation this would cause?
I'm not sure true fans do speak like that, though admittedly my friends tend to support Middlesbrough, St Johnstone and Barnsley rather than the big clubs. Not sure what that says about me. Perhaps we need to shout louder about the potential devastation by highlighting what we might lose, possibly by purchasing books about smaller clubs (what? WHAT?! It's Christmas and I have a daughter who needs presents).

As fans we think of us and them.  Given that you've visited so many places, most of them as a neutral, would you say that in truth fans have more things that make them alike then different?
We'd never admit it of our rivals, and nor should we, but yes. You see that at weddings: if the bloke you've been stranded next to has a team, if he gets it, then you're away. It's like you suddenly find you have a father in common.

And finally, do you have any other projects lined up?
Plenty of ideas, though I'd like to do something with Hatters first; the stories would make a lovely radio documentary, for example, and I have very, very cheap rates.

This interview originally appeared on The Tomkins' Times.


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