For this second instalment of the series of book reviews I’m calling Reading the Game, I’m looking at My Father and Other Working Class Football Heroes by Gary Imlach.
Now, this isn’t a new release; it was the William Hill Sports Book of the Year back in 2005. I’d thought about purchasing it numerous times over the years, but never taken the plunge and eventually, it was presented to me as a Christmas gift.
In the first part of Reading the Game, I mentioned the thread on the Non-League Matters Forum where numerous people have made recommendations in respect of books that might entertain a football-starved fan during the current lockdown. Once post within that discussion called My Father and… “a magnificent read”. Which is a pretty fair assessment of this quite remarkable book, which was written by Gary Imlach following the death of his father, Stewart.
It is as much Gary’s memoir as it is a biography of Stewart; in telling his Dad’s story, Gary Imlach shares a fair bit of his own. He writes very movingly about how, although he knew about Stewart’s career highlights, he didn’t actually know a huge amount more. This book is about the journeys he made – as both an adult and a child – to the places where his father lived and worked, in an effort to understand him better.
Unasked questions – and the efforts made to find the answers – run through this book. This struck a chord with me; my own Dad passed away in 2007 and I’ve since had numerous reasons to curse my own lack of curiosity about my Dad’s life before I was in it. As a result, My Father and… is a book that is full of warmth and emotion. There’s also a sense of self-discovery on Gary’s part; he writes about how he had fallen out of love with a game he’d essentially been born into and explores how football had been a connection with his Dad.
It also shines a light on just how different professional football is now, compared to the era in which Stweart Imlach played. Having started his career at a time when footballers’ earnings were restricted (the Maximum Wage was £20 per week), Imlach Senior would work as a Joiner during the closed season. Having grown up in the North of Scotland but played his entire professional career in England, Stewart made only a handful of appearances for his country, although he was selected for the 1958 World Cup.
The chapter about Scotland’s ill-fated tournament is possibly the book’s finest, given that it highlights the penny-pinching and slightly chaotic arrangements put in place by the Scottish FA, who sent their squad to Sweden without a manager and didn’t pay them per diems. This refusal to compensate their players for their time away, tied into a convoluted accounting system driven by game time, meant that at least one member of the squad went home owing the SFA money, because he hadn’t played in any of the matches!
A glance at Stewart Imlach’s career record suggests that he was a “journeyman”; in a 15-year professional career, he played for eight clubs and his longest spell at any of them was the five years he spent at Nottingham Forest, with whom he won The FA Cup in 1959. Yet, as this book details, many of the transfers he made were dictated to him. It’s almost inconceivable to followers of the modern game that Forest would transfer the Man of the Match in their Cup-winning team to the side they beat in the Final, just months later. But that’s what happened; Stewart was told to go and he went. These days, a brilliant and quick winger who was the standout performer at Wembley would be a superstar; Stewart was offered the maximum wage, take it or leave it.
The move to Luton didn’t work and before long he’d gone from a Wembley winner to the Third Division in less than a year, after the Hatters sold him to Coventry City. Yet, at no stage in this tale do we get a sense of bitterness or anger, from either Stewart or Gary. I got the sense that with each move, Stewart simply “got on with it” and that, in recording all this, Gary was determined to simply record things as they were.
There’s also a real admiration in Imlach Junior’s description of his father’s coaching career and how, after he left his final coaching role at Bury, he simply found other work. A theme that runs through the text like the letters in a stick of rock is the love and respect that Gary has for his Dad.
If there is any anger in this book, it comes towards the end, when the reader learns that Stewart had never been awarded a “cap” by the Scottish FA. It would seem that, in the past, the SFA only awarded caps for matches against the Home Nations. As Imlach Senior had represented his country against Hungary, Poland, Yugoslavia and France, he didn’t qualify. Efforts were made to rectify this – including pointing out that an exception to this rule had been made for goalkeeper and TV presenter Bob Wilson – and that the SFA’s refusal to bend did seem to rile the author.
That’s not a bad thing; I was rooting for the Imlachs as they tried to right this particular wrong. I’d love to say I was surprised by the SFA’s stance, but I’ve spent too long involved in the game to react with anything other than an eye-roll and a sigh.
I finished this book having learned a great deal about Stewart Imlach, whose name I’d only been dimly aware of in my schooldays when a History teacher from Nottinghamshire started reminiscing about his favourite footballers. I also had a new, deeper respect for Gary, whose clear and accessible style of writing makes this tale very easy and enjoyable to read.
There’s a reason why My Father and… remains in print more than 15 years after its publication; it is remarkable among sports books for the emotional charge which it carries and for the way in which it connects with the reader. The chances are, you’ve already read it. If you haven’t, you should.