Saturday, 16 August 2014

The Guinness Book of Soccer Facts & Feats (1979)

There was a day, long, long ago, when the name of Guinness loomed large in the literary world. You could buy The Guinness Book of Car Facts & Feats, The Guinness Book of British Hit Singles, The Guinness Book of Wild Flowers... I'm also led to believe there was a long-running series of books about people breaking records, too, but let's not get sidetracked by that. Back in the 1970's, if you wanted to feed your brain with morsels of football-related knowledge, The Guinness Book of Soccer Facts & Feats was the book to read.

The first edition of Jack Rollin's kick-and-run compendium was published in 1978 and four more were released, the last of which arrived in book shops in 1983. I was recently lucky enough to purchase a copy of the second edition, and as you'd expect, it really does pack in more facts than Stephen Fry on speed.

The level of detail at times is staggering, right from the moment you peruse the inside front and rear covers displaying the winning records of all League Championship-winning sides from 1889 onwards. Not only do you get the final points tallies and goal difference stats, but also the number of players used in each squad and the number of ever-present players they contained. And that's before you get to the Introduction.

The first main section of the book is 'Milestones' which uses as its basis the original laws of football from 1872. This in itself is a revelation as one discovers some elements of the game that have long since been changed or removed altogether. Who knew that after a goal was scored, the teams would always change ends? And the rule that states "No player shall wear nails, except such as have their heads driven in flush with the leather... on the soles or heels of his boots" only makes the mind boggle further at the way football used to be.

Further revisions of the laws are detailed and the wonderment continues. The two-handed throw-in? That arrived TEN years after the first rules were formed. Goal nets didn't arrive for a further eight years after that. And when were numbers first worn on shirts in an FA Cup Final? In 1933 - SIXTY-TWO years after the first FA Cup competition took place.

This fire-cracker set of facts and figures gets the book off to a great start, but it's swiftly followed by another great section called 'British Soccer - League Club Stories'. Here, each of the clubs in the English and Scottish Leagues has a paragraph devoted to it and a notable story from its history. Some of the tales told by Rollin are delightfully entertaining and brilliantly worded. Here's my favourite one, all about Hartlepool United:

"On 27 November 1916 a doomed German Zeppelin, caught in the glare of searchlights and in flames from the fire of a persistent Royal Flying Corps pilot's armoury, jettisoned its remaining bombs as it made for the sea. Two of them shattered the main stand at Hartlepool United's ground. After the war the club claimed £2,500 compensation form the German government. The claim was relentlessly pressed by correspondence, but the only tangible reply was another bomb on the ground in the Second World War."

What then follows is an admittedly drier section that details the highest and lowest number of league wins, league goals and league defeats by various teams, but relief quickly comes in the eight pages of colour photographs that succeed it. Although the focus here is on the important figures of the day - Brian Clough, Trevor Francis and Ron Greenwood among them - there's also a lovely double-page spread showing a montage of football programmes from around the world.

With that out of the way, it's back into a seemingly unending mass of rudimentary facts and figures about British league clubs and international cup competitions. It's here that the informal tone from earlier in the book gives way to serious statistics, but reading this as a kid, you'd have been soaking up all this knowledge like a sponge. It's what you did when you were younger, and if your juvenile self was keen to learn who Manchester City played during their 1976-77 UEFA Cup run or something just as irrelevant to the average man on the street, this book came up trumps again and again.

After a second selection of colour photographs (this time from the 1978 World Cup) and an assessment of world football and its key players and competitions, the book ends with a Miscellany that again makes one smile with its detail. We learn that Robert Howell of Sheffield was the only gypsy to play for England and that Albert Iremonger of Notts County was, at 1.96 metres, the tallest player to appear regularly in the Football League. (Think Peter Crouch, but seven centimetres shorter.)

Surely, though, the final word about this excellent book has to go to its feature on the 'Football League's Foreign Legion' - those players born overseas that were plying their trade in England during the 1978-79 season. If anyone's curious to know what football was like 36 years ago, just be aware that all 13 foreign players were listed in a space no bigger than three inches by ten on one of its pages. Time marches on, but books like this provide the context by which we judge modern-day football, and beautifully so.

-- Chris Oakley


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