To celebrate FA Cup Final day, my next Reading the Game book review is The Cup by Richard Whitehead. Released in March with the subtitle “A Pictorial Celebration of the World’s Greatest Football Tournament”, The Cup attempts to shine a light on the 150-year history of the FA Cup by selecting photos taken in connection with the competition, then telling the story of each picture.
There are, fittingly, eleven chapters and while the book starts with ‘Romance’ and ends with ‘Giant Killers’, The Cup is far more than a collection of well-worn tropes. For example, the section of the book called ‘Journeys’ features 1959 winner (and previous review subject) Stewart Imlach during his return to Nottingham from Wembley. Striding into the shot with a cigar in his mouth, Imlach is returning a tea tray to the Buffet Car on the train carrying his Nottingham Forest team home. As an image which highlights just how different life was for professional footballers during the 1950s compared to today, it is striking. The page of text which accompanies the shot quotes from the biography of Imlach by his son, Gary, but also refers to Stewart’s “selfless industry”, which had helped Forest to victory despite their being reduced to 10 men.
The Cup includes hundreds of images from all the different stages of the tournament; photos from Finals are given the same billing as matches from the qualifying rounds which whittle more than 500 non-League clubs down to the 32 granted a place in the First Round Proper. Most of them are joyous, especially when given their context in an accompanying essay; I got an unexpected shot of extra joy when a stunning shot of the main stand at Marlow FC – the only club to have entered every FA Cup – turned out to feature my beloved Ashford Town (Middlesex) in a cup-tie they went on to win.
However, as much as The Cup is a celebration of the grand old tournament, there is sadness to be found within its pages too. It cannot be escaped that the Hillsborough disaster took place because of the mismanagement of an FA Cup semi-final and Richard Whitehead does not shy away from that; over four pages, a summary of what happened in 1989 is presented without sensationalising the tragedy. The 1946 disaster at Burnden Park, Bolton, is described in a similar way.
As a record of the history of the FA Cup – both good and bad – The Cup is an excellent companion for another book I’ve reviewed in this series, FA Cup 150 by Phil Annets. Where FA Cup 150 is a peerless collection of statistics, The Cup is a stunning visual record of the competition’s history and deep roots which run right through English football.
Make no mistake, this is a gorgeous book. The photos are, naturally, the focal point, but a lot of care has been taken with their presentation, with careful use of colour and well-chosen typography. But what elevates this book to another level is the writing. Richard Whitehead was once a Senior Editor at The Times and has used his journalistic skills to ensure that each of the essays accompanying photos is well-paced and concise.
Perhaps best of all, while the book is an outstanding read in the traditional, linear way, it would be equally enjoyable to ‘dip into’ from time to time; the text which accompanies the images stands alone as well as it ties into the narrative themes.
When Whitehead’s abilities as a writer are combined with an obvious love of football at all levels and the wealth of well-chosen images found on these pages, the result is a terrific book. My copy was a birthday present from my children and The Cup is a gift that will keep on giving for years to come.
At £25, The Cup isn’t a cheap book, but it is worth every penny. You can ‘try before you buy’ by visiting the Pitch Publishing website, where a sample download from the book is available for free. Pitch also include links to some of the big booksellers on their listing for The Cup but regular readers will know that I shop when I can at Stanchion Books, who are an independent bookshop specialising in football. You can buy The Cup and a wealth of other titles from Stanchion by clicking here.