Tuesday, 15 August 2017

"I scored for Milan!" The Primo Levi short story that foresaw Virtual Reality

Virtual reality headsets are nothing new, at least not in the human imagination. Back in the 1960s, Auschwitz survivor Primo Levi - one of the 20th century's most important writers - published 'Retirement Package,' a short story that foresaw the use of a helmet connected to a machine called a Total Recorder (or Torec). This allowed humans to live inside any pre-recorded event and experience the sensation of, say, scoring a goal for AC Milan.

"Yay! I scored for AC Milan!"
The narrator is being shown the Torec and its tapes by a friend, Simpson, who has just received the machine as a 'retirement gift' from his company, NATCA, where he's been a long-serving salesman. The Torec is not yet on the market and Simpson is just the company's willing guinea pig, but using his sales skills he persuades the sceptical narrator, who is not a football fan, to put on the helmet and place himself in the shoes of a Milan player called Rasmussen.

The narrator complies and describes "an intense odour of overturned earth. I was sweating and my ankle hurt slightly." He also feels "nimble and ready, like a loaded spring". Running with the ball, he passes to a team-mate on his right and, amid "the rising roar of the

Tuesday, 8 August 2017

Letting go of Leeds - seven years in the League Cup hinterland

Lincoln City returned to the Football League last Saturday, and tonight (Tuesday) they return to the League Cup. It's almost seven years to the day since their last appearance in this competition, a night I remember well because I flew in specially from Germany to watch it. We were away to cuddly Leeds United, a team supported by several members of my extended family. We'd decided to all go and watch the match together. A night of Family Fun.

Finally time for the Leeds v
 Lincoln Family Championship
Leeds are the sort of club you're supposed to hate, but hate's an over-used and extremely unhelpful word when it comes to football. I once wrote a contribution to a regular When Saturday Comes feature called Viva Hate about my feelings towards Walsall FC, because one of their players had attacked me outside a night club in Birmingham. But it was a disingenuous piece of writing. The incident had been funny and farcical, not traumatic, and it didn't really make me hate Walsall. How can you hate Walsall? It's like trying to hate a cardboard box.

If life's too short to hate Walsall, then it's also too short to hate Leeds. Especially when it's you and your dad (Lincoln) outnumbered by nine other sisters, aunts, cousins and nephews (Leeds). And especially when you're the only Lincoln fans in the home stand. You're not going to stand up and start shouting, "You've been dirty bastards since the

Tuesday, 25 July 2017

The art of watching football while on holiday

There used to be a three-stage process when I wanted to watch a football match while on holiday with my family. Stage One: mention as an obvious joke the fact that FC Unpronounceable have a home game against The Totally Fucking Unknowns in the Bob Fazackerly Clipboards League in the very week that we happen to be renting a cottage in the neighbouring town. Laugh along as your wife says something like, "What sad, desperate failure of a human being would want to go and watch such an utterly shite, pointless sporting event like that?" 
The high octane thrills of the Estonian League (Pic: TQF)
Stage Two (the crucial stage. The breaking point): mention it again two days before the game with the vague outline of a plan. Remember that match I was talking about the other day? Yeah, I know, stupid waste of time, ha ha, but it happens to be on the same night where we have nothing really planned, and it turns out that these two teams have a bit of history. Two red cards in the corresponding fixture last season. Could get tasty. Nice little stadium too. Might be able to get a piece out of it for 'When Saturday Comes'. Then cower humbly as your wife unleashes her disbelief. "You're seriously thinking about going to watch this bollocks? Seriously?" Yes, quite seriously.

Stage Three: Permission was not exactly given during Stage Two, but there's no stopping me now. It's time to forge the plan and execute it with added details. "There's a lad playing for FC

Thursday, 6 July 2017

The first thrill of Wembley - schoolboy internationals in the 1970s

Where is the Sunkist
 Trophy now?
"I hear you missed a penalty at Wembley last night." That was PE teacher Mr. Baxter's snarky putdown of schoolboy international Gary Hargreaves in an early episode of Grange Hill, when Hargreaves had been acting all cocky with his mates. This was a fine touch of Phil Redmond script-writing, because nearly all young male viewers would have known that England schoolboys played midweek at Wembley. The June international on a Saturday afternoon, meanwhile, was one of the few live games shown on TV in the 1970s.

Better still, our school organised an annual outing to the game, including a visit to London Zoo in the morning. Our own version of Mr Baxter growled at us before we left one year: "This will be my 12th visit to the zoo, and frankly I'm sick of it. So if I catch anyone misbehaving, don't expect me to be in the best of moods."

True, the zoo was just the warm-up act ahead of visiting the national stadium, but it was a crucial part of the day's ritual. If you go all the way from Lincolnshire to London for the day, you have to do something else besides watching 90 minutes of football. But why the zoo every year? Perhaps it was considered much easier to keep us

Tuesday, 27 June 2017

Disturbing Fans No.2: Hamilton Accies’ Last Great Orator

Last week I was browsing second hand book shops in Edinburgh when I came across a large hardback about Scottish football, published sometime in the 1980s. At the back end of the book was an obligatory, but short, section about the importance of fans. “Without the fans there’d be no game etc.” Alongside this dullard’s prose I found a picture of Ian ‘Fergie’ Russell, the man who inspired my short story ‘Furlington Welfare’s Last Great Orator’, published in For Whom the Ball Rolls

Literary inspiration - the
Late 'Fergie' of
 Hamilton Aacdemical 
During the early 1980s I went to a lot of games at Hamilton Academical, because my dad lived close by at the time. They played mainly in the Scottish second tier, and attracted around 1500 fans to their now demolished stadium, Douglas Park (it's a Sainsbury's). There are very few specific games that I can remember seeing there besides a mildly surprising 2-1 victory over Dundee in the Scottish League Cup. Truth be told, the most entertaining performer at Douglas Park was Fergie.

A portly gent, then in his late 40s, Fergie wore a shabby, dark grey suit and always had a red Accies scarf draped around his neck. His talent was to bark out unceasing invective for the entire 90 minutes, regardless of score and opponent.

Douglas Park was the standard, spartan Scottish lower league ground with a stand and three sides of terracing. You could walk around the entire terrace uninterrupted if you fancied a change of

Tuesday, 20 June 2017

Sunday papers, scrapbooks, and knowing that Brechin beat Forfar

Scores, scorers, crowds and
tables = six-year-old's paradise
When I was six years old in the early 1970s I provided the Sunday afternoon entertainment for the Cocking brothers, the butcher’s sons who lived two doors up. Chris, the youngest, was my mate. We played football together, but he preferred war games, which always ended with his mum yelling at us for treading on her wallflowers while sidling up on the enemy. His two older siblings, Steve and Ian, were already teenagers who had nothing better to do on the Sabbath than pick up a copy of The People and test me on the previous day’s football results.

I can’t remember how it started. I was probably about to confront a Lincolnshire-based Nazi spy when I overheard one of the Cockings casually ask how Grimsby had got on the day before. I would have turned my attention from Fritz the Enemy - making an imaginary thick-accented plea for mercy - to chirp, “Lost 3-2 at Watford, goals scored by Coyle and Lewis. Crowd: 5,669.” What else did I know, they must have wondered?

And so I began to habitually turn up just as they were finishing off their weekly roast. They’d kick off with the big games (easy) and, in an atmosphere of increasing hilarity, make their way down through the four divisions, and then into Scotland too. Their incredulous delight came from the fact that I could remember every single score, from the Manchester derby to Forfar’s 3-1 away win at Brechin City. I

Friday, 9 June 2017

Calling on fans to boycott the next two World Cups

Eric Cantona shows us a sign
A few disparate but powerless voices have been calling on fans to boycott the next two World Cups on the grounds that both Russia and Qatar are serial violators of human rights. I am one of a very small handful of people I know who is refusing to watch the current qualifiers, and who will not watch a single World Cup game of any kind until the start of the qualifying campaign for the 2026 event.

Football’s authorities have always claimed, predictably enough, that they can not be involved in “politics”, as though human rights were a mere issue among others to be debated during electoral campaigns. As though sport exists in a cultural vacuum, never to be politically exploited by states wanting to present a phoney ceremonial façade of peace and national stability to the world at large.

Yet from Hitler’s 1936 Olympic propaganda triumph, all the way to Brazil’s World Cup and the Rio Olympics 80 years later, sporting

Thursday, 8 June 2017

Disturbing Fans No. 1: The Bell Ringer From Hell

Just because I'm a quiet fan doesn't mean that I don't appreciate the effort that other supporters put into their noise. The first in an occasional series.

Schalke's bell-ringer from
 hell (pic: The Quiet Fan)
In 2005 I took my father-in-law, Gerd, to his first game since 1947, when as a teenager he’d seen Helmut Schön play in the small stadium opposite his house. For my birthday he'd bought me two tickets to the German League Cup Final at the newly renovated stadium in Leipzig, and begrudgingly agreed to come along "if you can't find anyone else". As it happened, I couldn't, and so we drove together from his home in Dresden to the outskirts of town and took the specially laid-on shuttle tram to the freshly rebuilt World Cup stadium.

There was a reason my father-in-law hadn't been to a game for 57 years. Although he likes to watch football on television, happily moaning from the safety of his sofa, his view of humanity at large has been shaped by growing up in 1930s Germany, and then fleeing Dresden from the post-war Soviet

Wednesday, 7 June 2017

The Quiet Fan - about the blog and the book

This blog would not exist without the book The Quiet Fan - a football memoir that recounts the quirks of growing up in the 1970s and 80s as a fan of both Lincoln City (by geography) and Scotland (by blood). It also examines not only why football is so important to so many of us, but how we can watch and enjoy it in a more sane, less furious fashion.

The Quiet Fan is already written, but awaits publication at the crowd-funding publisher Unbound. In short, if enough people want to read it (and therefore pledge to buy it), then the book will appear in print. So if you like what you read here - the content is exclusive to this blog - then you will certainly like the book too. Just to be sure, you can read an excerpt here and buy a limited edition hardback copy to ensure that "this fast, funny, emotive memoir" (publisher's blurb) reaches a world beyond my computer's hard drive.   

Thank you very much in advance for your support.

Previous books: For Whom the Ball Rolls (Fiction - 12 football short stories, 10 miscellaneous)
"A fine read. Plenderleith creates a bittersweet world [where] football can bring joy, misery and bewilderment in the same story." The Sunday Times

Rock n Roll Soccer: The Short Life and Fast Times of the North American Soccer League
"A compendious but vividly entertaining history of the League."  Independent on Sunday (Book of the Week)
"Written with a raffish exuberance worthy of its subject." Times Literary Supplement