In the Penal Colony

The Roses Matches 1919-1939, by Neville Cardus. (Souvenir Press, 1982)



I am unsure, when writing about Neville Cardus, how much knowledge I may presume. Although I am willing to be contradicted, my suspicion is that he is, for younger readers, more of a name than a substantial presence, and, perhaps, more slighted than read. The terms most often prompted by his name would probably be “lyrical” or “rhapsodic”. He stands accused of “fine writing” (as opposed to crude writing, or lousy writing, of which there is currently no great shortage) ; worse still, he is suspected of nostalgia.

Puritans of all kinds, from “Ticker” Mitchell to the Leavises, have long found his writing objectionable, and the sophisticated taste used to prefer Robertson-Glasgow, in the same way that it preferred Keaton to Chaplin, or MacNeice to Auden. The reaction set in in earnest soon after his death in 1975, since when it has been obligatory for anyone who fancies themselves as a bit of an iconoclast to have, at least, a side-swipe at him.

Derek Birley (who, I think, sees Cardus as some kind of class traitor) devoted a chapter of ‘The Willow Wand’ to taking a single phrase of his, never meant entirely seriously*, and misinterpreting it. Mike Marquese, in the first sentence of ‘Anyone but England’, refers to him as “that self-made snob Neville Cardus”, which is so gratuitous that he could have achieved the same effect by replacing “snob” with “wanker” or “prick”. More recently there was this outburst by Daniel Norcross, in which he implies that Cardus’s writing is “twee” and like – of all people’s – Lytton Strachey’s (Strachey’s shtick was to debunk revered figures from the nineteenth century, whereas Cardus is usually seen as having been too reverent of them).

A shilling life will give you all the facts of his life (or, failing that, the excellent Wikipedia page)**. He was born in Rusholme, Manchester in 1888 (or 1889), the illegitimate son of a woman who, alongside her sister, supplemented her income from taking in washing by being what Cardus described as a “kind of genteel courtesan” (if he were writing for ‘the Guardian’ today I suppose he would be obliged to describe them as “sex workers”, which seems like a terrible comedown for poor Ada and Beatrice). He rarely attended school and left for good in 1901 (today he would probably have been taken into “care“). After an arduous course of self-education, he obtained a post as Assistant Cricket Professional at Shrewsbury School, then doubled up as the Headmaster’s secretary. When this came to an end, he managed to inveigle himself into the offices of the ‘Manchester Guardian’, initially as a kind of unpaid “intern“.

He was employed as its cricket correspondent, under the pseudonym “Cricketer“, between 1919 (when he was 29, or possibly 30) and 1939. He had originally no intention of writing about cricket professionally, his ambition (fulfilled in 1927) being to become the paper’s music correspondent, but was invited to do so as a way of recovering from some form of nervous collapse (described by him as a “breakdown“), while working as a junior reporter (those aspiring to write about cricket nowadays may envy his ease of entry into the profession).

During this period he published four collections of essays : ‘A Cricketer’s Book’, ‘Days in the Sun’, ‘The Summer Game’ and ‘Good Days’, and an account of the tour to Australia of 1936-7. Having spent the war in Australia, where he wrote his best-selling ‘Autobiography’, he returned to live in London (at the National Liberal Club) and become a full-time music critic. Although he did not abandon writing about cricket altogether, “Cricketer” was retired. He published one new collection (of retrospective pieces he had written for ‘Playfair Cricket Monthly’), as well as further autobiographical writings and a number of new collections, recycling previously published pieces, some already collected, some new.

This habit of recycling older material means that reading Cardus can induce a sense of deja vu (a little like listening to a band such as the Smiths, who produced four or five albums, but whose work has been posthumously recombined in different configurations). He was also, by his own admission, uninhibited about repeating himself, if he felt a point was worth repeating, and always solicitous to ensure that his readers should not have missed out on any of his choicer bon mots. What he rarely recycled, however, were the match reports that he written for the MG (by his own estimation, he wrote 8,000 words a week, or nearly two million in twenty years), so I was interested to come across this collection of reports on the Roses matches of 1919-39, compiled after his death by his “cricket wife”, protegee and literary executor, Margaret Hughes.

In his introduction, John Arlott writes “He created a style of reporting the game ; and then virtually re-created it in the years of his maturity”. Cardus himself, in his ‘Autobiography’ endorsed this view that there were, as it were, two Carduses (in the way that there are meant to be “two Wittgensteins”).

“It was with very conscious art that I entered into my first and “yellow” period as a writer on cricket … I overwrote, no doubt … My first books, ‘Days in the Sun’ and ‘A Cricketer’s Book’are obviously the “literary efforts” of one who is keeping his eye not so much on the ball as on his pen and style … My later writings … were, as far as I could make them, based first on observation … and even then it was humour and irony that guided the choice. None the less nearly all my critics persisted, whenever I produced another book on cricket, with their old labels about my “lyrical muse”, my “rhapsodies in green”, my “heroics”.”

This was first published in 1947, but is still the case today. It is true that Cardus’s most memorable essays belongs to his earlier period. If I ever feel disenchanted by cricket (which, it will come as no surprise to regular readers, I sometimes do) I return to pieces such as ‘The Summer Game’ and ‘On a Fresh Cricket Season’ to remind myself how watching cricket can sometimes be, and how it ought to feel. To read these is to share the sense of release that Cardus experienced when he first began writing about cricket ; release, apart from his mental affliction, from the physical confines of the Guardian’s “Corridor“, and from overwork and poverty (he notes that his new job brought him an increase in pay to £5.00 a week).

Writing about cricket, though, meant not only a release, but the hope of returning to the happiest days of his childhood and youth, when he had watched the great Lancashire players of the Golden Age (a notion he did much to create) playing at Old Trafford. His most lyrical pieces about individuals in this earliest period are about them, and, turning to his journalism between the wars, we find it, too, haunted by the ghosts of MacLaren, Tyldelsey, Spooner and Brearley. His style also harks back to the previous century : in his more high-flown pieces he writes in the vein of Pater, in his more comical aspect (often when writing about Yorkshiremen) he is Dickensian.

It was his misfortune that the cricket he found when he returned was not cricket as he had remembered it (he is not insensible to the possibility that it never had been). The Roses matches of the inter-war period were notoriously dour affairs (their notoriety partly due to Cardus himself), in which winning the points available for a first innings lead was regarded as victory enough. Both sides could count on easily defeating the majority of the other Counties, so felt free to pursue these matches as a kind of private, fraternal, feud.***

A glance at the table of contents indicates the blissful regularity of these fixtures. Every year for twenty years the Roses matches coincided with the Whit and August Bank Holidays (as opposed to today, when the County schedule each new season bears no resemblance to the last). Every game began on the Saturday, continued on the Bank Holiday Monday and finished on the Tuesday. The Mondays could attract huge crowds (he mentions that there were 45,000 at Old Trafford in 1926), the other days rather fewer (only 2,000 on the – admittedly rain-affected – first day at Bradford in 1929).

The next thing that strikes me is the sheer length of the pieces, which generally run to about two thousand words. Presumably, he had Sunday to write about Saturday’s play, but the others must have been written to tight deadlines. Cardus was naturally prone to prolixity (and resented being edited – in his later years he referred to the ‘Guardian’’s sub-editors’ room as “the Abattoir”), but even he had sometimes to resort to padding (in the early years some unnecessarily long quotations from Shakespeare make an appearance towards the end of his pieces). Nonetheless, to write this much so quickly and so well, and for it to remain readable, is an achievement that I could never hope to emulate.

The pieces fall into roughly two periods : those from 1919 to 1929 or -30 and those of the 1930s. The first corresponds roughly to his “lyrical” period, but there is surprisingly little lyricism, or even much enthusiasm about them. The leading characters were survivors from the pre-war period : Wilfred Rhodes and Emmott Robinson for Yorkshire (Robinson had not made his debut until 1919, at the age of 35, but he belonged to the pre-war generation) and Harry Makepeace of Lancashire, together with newer players such as James and Ernest Tyledsley, who tended to bring out the Dickensian in Cardus, but did not make much appeal to his “un-English aestheticism”.

What is notable, for the period, is the absence of moralism (Cardus was an interesting example of someone who was, by conventional standards, almost entirely amoral but also almost entirely benign). The Yorkshire sides of the 1920s were notorious for their bad behaviour : sharp practice, abuse of the opposition, even (as against Middlesex at Sheffield in 1924) insinuations of physical violence on the field (Dudley Carew claimed that they sometimes seemed to be “playing under the skull and crossbones”). Of this, there is no hint in Cardus, certainly no disapproval.

The Yorkshire crowds, too, were known for their hostility (particularly those at Bramall Lane), for barracking both the opposition and their own players and, when especially frustrated or bored, pelting them with orange peel, cinders and other detritus. But again, there is no disapproval from Cardus ; his reports come most to life when he is relishing their partisan vehemence and only become critical when they seem subdued. He is sometimes accused of being excessively “pastoral”, but he was really the laureate of the old North at its dirtiest, as in this description of Bradford (which he didn’t much like) in 1923 :

“ ‘Cricket in hell,’ said a South of England man today, as he saw the Bradford field for the first time … From noon till evening the place has been like some vast underworld, discordant, ugly, uncomfortable. Even before noon the ground was full and the gates locked. Some 26,000 souls were inside making writhing congested ranks, and surely torment was their lot, what with the sun and the heavy air. Outside the unlovely field gloomy chimneys sent out smoke that curled into the summer sky sulkily … The crowd had little of the fluid humour of a Sheffield crowd: it was dull and seemingly a little stupid from its own bulk and unwieldiness. As the day passed on, the crowd broke bounds and overflowed on to the playing piece. Mounted police were called in to drive the derelicts back, and then we saw the green edge of the field littered with rubbish – it was as though a dank tide had gone out, leaving behind its scum.

This may be “lyrical”, but it can hardly be accused of being “pastoral” or “twee”.

In fact, although the writing sometimes flares into life (for instance when he describes Ted MacDonald bowling to a young Herbert Sutcliffe), and there are many nice phrases (many of which he gives us another chance to read), the first half of this book can be a little dull. Cardus was very aware that, for his readers (‘the Manchester Guardian’ was very much a local paper in those days), the Roses Match was the most important of the season, and would be relying on him to provide a detailed narrative of what had occurred. To begin with, he did so lengthily and conscientiously, which would have been interesting at the time, if he were the only source of information, but is less so today. At times he even resorts to statistics.

Even during this first period, Cardus sometimes has difficulty in suppressing his frustration at what he is watching. As early as 1920 he is describing “a day of spineless cricket” at Bradford. At Old Trafford in 1921 he notes that the game was “living, like too many institutions in these days, quite definitely on its past”. At Old Trafford in 1925 the cricket was “futile and hardly worth discussing”. At Bradford in 1926 he complains of “lethal dullness” and the “worst exhibition” he has ever seen by a Lancashire side. By 1928, “the dregs of disillusion were slightly to be tasted in our mouth”. He is, however, still capable of relishing these contests, in a half-ironical way, as exhibitions of character, and seems to be writing as a frustrated, but still hopeful, romantic, rather than one who is decidedly disenchanted.

By the turn of the decade, however, the tone of his writing changed, as he entered his forties, and became actively satirical. The pre-war generation were fading away and being replaced by a new one that did little to fire his admiration (it did not help that Lancashire were now much the weaker side, and – Eddie Paynter aside – he hardly has a good word to say about them). As for Yorkshire, he is strangely unimpressed by Hedley Verity, left cold by Maurice Leland, only respectful of Hutton and has grown disillusioned with Herbert Sutcliffe, with whom, like Hammond, he had a complex relationship, mixed of respect for his ability with a dislike of what he thought he represented (for want of a better word, modernity).****

Sometimes his satirical intent is wittily expressed. The pitch at Old Trafford in 1930 was prepared “under the most modern anaesthetics”, and “humour certainly came in by reason of the contrast between what the crowd was hoping to see and what they were actually getting. The afternoon’s charm and pleasantry were increased by a wind which caused dust and grit to get into the eyes and mouth”. An innings by Gibb was as “post-war as a petrol station”. There is something like this on every page, much of it occasioned by the obdurate Arthur “Ticker” Mitchell, who became his muse, much as Frank Woolley had been in his greenery-yallery youth. “When Mitchell was smothering the ball with his legs I felt a screen ought to have concealed him from from the public gaze” ; “at ten minutes to one, Mitchell’s score [he had opened] moved uneasily in its sleep and went from eight to ten” ; “Mitchell reverted to type and ceased perceptible action”.

As the decade progressed he became quite startlingly scathing. “The Lancashire and Yorkshire match is becoming an eyesore and a nuisance ; it is a pity we cannot somehow get rid of it.” “The Yorkshire tail played stupid, nit-witted cricket.” “As to Lancashire and Yorkshire, I am tired of their annual exhibition of ‘dourness’, or – to give it the proper name – its solid witless tedium.” “Saturday’s stupefied assemblage … watched the dreary action in silence, as though at the unveiling of the Cenotaph.” “The Lancashire and Yorkshire match is a dreary fraud, and nothing less.” “As soon as the game was over the weather brightened, like the rest of us.” “Cricket at Leeds is like cricket in a penal settlement.” And (cruellest of all) “the occasion might as well have been Lancashire v Northamptonshire”.

By June 1938, it is clear that a crisis was approaching. This is the opening paragraph of his report from Bradford

“Once again a Lancashire and Yorkshire match has been a public nuisance and a bore. I have seldom suffered tedium as dreadful as this. And on top of it all discomfort and shabbiness. The accommodation for the press at Bradford is inadequate, not to say inhumane ; galley slaves are better off than the tortured souls who this afternoon have tried to make a truthful record of an event which ought really to have been forgotten at once. If the good fairies granted me one wish I should ask for freedom to stay away from all Lancashire and Yorkshire cricket matches for the remainder of my days. I never expected to endure tribulation such as Saturday’s – not at any rate in this world. The cricket caused aches of boredom ; the environment in which it was played suited the stunted drabness of it … Whitsun in the North – stupid sport and a crowd silent and dejected. The Lancashire and Yorkshire match should be played in camera, with the players the only spectators : they deserve no better fate.”

By the time of the last Roses match he covered, from 5-8 August 1939, he must have known that the good fairies, in the shape of Adolf Hitler and the Wehrmacht, were about to grant him his wish. On his last day, recapturing that early elation of release, he signed off with “I have seldom seen a day of grander cricket”. As far as I know, he never covered a Roses match again, or not under the compulsion of employment.

Although this would not be the book I should recommend as an introduction to Cardus, Margaret  Hughes did us a great service by collecting these pieces.  If nothing else, they confirm that it is easier to write entertainingly about poor cricket than good cricket, which, to one who tries to write about Leicestershire, is a source of comfort.  For another, very few of these frank expressions of disenchantment were included in the pieces Cardus himself chose to preserve.

It is said that, if women could remember childbirth, they would never have another child, and it is possible that, if we could remember how awful many of the games of cricket we have watched were at the time, we would never watch another one.  So, when next season approaches, I shan’t be re-reading my own accounts from last year, but turning to Cardus’s ‘On a Fresh Cricket Season‘.

Nothing can go wrong with him on this blessed morning …”
* Cardus’s ‘Autobiography‘ is the only one of his books that seems to be unambiguously in print.  This gives you not only the facts, but a certain amount of fantasy.  ‘His Own Man‘, by Christopher Brookes tries to distinguish between the two.
** There is a certain style of self-ironising, provocative, pretentiousness that Cardus often employs which seems to be peculiarly Mancunian.  You can also see it in the work of Factory Records and Les Dawson, amongst others (the title of Dawson’s unpublished ‘”serious” novel, ‘An Echo of Shadows‘ could have served equally as the title for a Durutti Column LP or a piece from Cardus’s “lyrical” period).  As a Yorkshireman, Birley perhaps misinterprets this.

*** Of the 1233 matches Lancashire and Yorkshire played between the wars, they won 585 and lost only 126.  There were only two seasons when Lancashire finished lower than sixth ; Yorkshire never finished lower than fifth, and were first or second 14 times.

**** He has this to say, for instance : “Sometimes Sutcliffe’s cricket, so eternal and complacent and English middle class, reminds me of the Albert Hall“.  Perhaps this is what Marquese meant by “snobbery“.






Pessoa and the Lambton Worms


The Meaning of Sport / Simon Barnes : Short Books, 2006

Hatters, Railwaymen and Knitters : Travels Through England’s Football Provinces / Daniel Gray : Bloomsbury, 2013 

For the sake of argument, there are two types of argument about sport (as this piece is going to be structured around collapsible binary oppositions, I may as well start as I mean to go on). So, for the sake of argument, two. The first, which – however heated – has the potential to achieve some kind of resolution, is about matters of detail, or means, by those who assume a common goal. In the second kind, the disputants will always be at cross purposes, and the argument can never be resolved, because their motives for following the sport, and the goals they are hoping to achieve, are quite different and incompatible.

For example, if the point at issue is whether the number of First Class Counties should be reduced, to produce a higher quality of cricket and a more successful England side, two people who follow cricket for reasons of connoisseurship (an informed appreciation of high quality cricket), or national patriotism, will be arguing only as to whether that is an effective means to a commonly agreed end. They may reach agreement with each other, but will never agree with someone whose motives for watching cricket are primarily social (a chance to meet their friends, a sense of belonging), or local patriotism. Cricket is, perhaps, more prone to these intractable arguments than, say, football, because, as well as having a broader emotional range, its followers have a wider range of motives.

This thought occurred to me when the happy serendipity of the charity shop led me to read two books, both ostensibly about sport (they were shelved in the sports section). One was “The Meaning of Sport” by Simon Barnes, the other “Hatters, Railwaymen and Knitters” by Daniel Gray. Both are described on their cover as “joyful”, but neither author would, I think, be able to extract much joy from the other’s sporting life. I am not intending to review both books. I enjoyed, and would recommend both, but although the authors are of interest as individuals, I am more concerned with them here as types, as extreme cases of two attitudes to sport, or as polar opposites on a spectrum which I hereby, grandly, dub “the Barnes-Gray Scale”.

To begin with the similarities, both books are accounts of travelling to watch sport over a limited period of time. Barnes, in his then-role as Chief Sportswriter for “The Times”, begins his journey in Portugal in 2004 for the European (Football) Championships, and ends in Summer 2006, in Germany to watch the (Football) World Cup. In between, he takes in Wimbledon, the Olympic Games in Athens, the US Open, the Ryder Cup, the European Cup Final in Istanbul, the 2005 Ashes series, the Winter Olympics (from his home in Suffolk), the Test series in India, and another European Cup Final in Paris. In between, he zooms back and forth, in space and time, from Zambia to Zimbabwe to Japan ; he is menaced by a jaguar, kisses Daryl Hannah, falls off his horse and has frequent misadventures with internet connections.

Gray’s book covers roughly (the chronology is a little vague) the calendar year 2011. He aims, as he turns thirty, to visit the football grounds of those teams who finished first, second and last in the four divisions in the year of his birth, meaning that he ends up in Middlesborough, Sheffield, Luton, Ipswich, Watford, Leyton, Chester, Crewe, Hinckley, Burnley, Bradford, Carlisle and Newquay (sharp-eyed readers may be able to spot a couple of anomalies in that list). His modus operandi (although he doesn’t say so, I think he must have been working from Monday to Friday) is to arrive by public transport on the morning of the match, mooch around town, give us a potted history of the town and the club, have a drink, watch the match, go out on the town (on his own), stay in a cheap hotel, mooch around a bit more and head back to Scotland (where he lives). He, too, encounters difficulties along the way : he is annoyed by some mildly racist old ladies and almost has his notebook confiscated by stewards in Luton, and is accused of “looking like Harry Potter” and being “a paedo” in Middlesborough ; he takes in various pubs and social clubs, a Nando’s, a McDonald’s and the Luton Conservative Club.

Barnes writes like a professional (he describes having to write 600 words in half an hour, and how the ability to do so plausibly is the real mark of a journalist). His book consists of 158 short pieces, each about the length of a newspaper column, and containing at its heart one thought, usually epigrammatically expressed. Some of these epigrams glisten briefly, then burst like soap bubbles ; sometimes the pieces are like an elegant display of Barcelona-style tiki-taka that results in nothing, but usually the thought, once unwrapped from its cocoon of words, is worth having (I realised, on re-reading the book, that I have internalised several of them to the extent that I had forgotten their origin).

Gray (and I mean this as a compliment) writes like a blogger : he rambles, meanders and takes detours as his whimsy takes him ; if he comes across something that takes his fancy, then in it goes into his narrative – talking CCTV cameras in Middlesborough, Benedictine drinkers at Turf Moor, the shops next door to the childhood home of Jarvis Cocker. His writing resembles that of Stuart Maconie (though without the mania for puns) and Harry Pearson (and, if you don’t like either of those, you are unlikely to admire Gray), tinged with a zany, Reeves and Mortimer-style kitchen sink surrealism. Occasionally, an overambitious figure of speech is fired high over the bar into Row Z from thirty yards out (lambs glimpsed from a train are “like white mice climbing ladles in a cutlery drawer”) but, mostly, his style is vivid and droll. A typical passage (and, if you can’t see what this has to do with sport, it might suggest you are a Barnes) might include :

Lambton Worms of two-up two-downs once more take me to a home ground … Ticket office girls, with whom I spend more time on Saturdays than my wife, ignore me at first. They have an important matter at hand : one has pinched a bacon Frazzle from the other. ‘That’s my dinner, ger off.’ … At half-time, one, two, three then four people all sidle along to the gangway and slip on a battered haddock, discarded at the game’s start as its eater cheered Crewe’s goal.

The two writers set out their stall in their titles. “Hatters, Knitters and Railwaymen” (the nicknames of Luton Town, Hinckley Athletic and Swindon Town respectively) is concrete, particular and conveys, concisely, that Gray is interested in the way that football clubs preserve the sense of identity that was once generated by local industries. “The Meaning of Sport” is grandly ambitious, abstract, and, apparently, so pretentious that it could, by any other writer, only be intended at least semi-ironically.

Barnes is often accused of pretension ; unfairly, I think, in that he does not pretend to a level of intelligence, or a breadth of cultural reference, that he does not possess. What makes him unusual is that he sees no incongruity in writing about sport in the same way that he approaches high culture, and, therefore, has no sense of the potential for bathetic comedy in doing so (he seems genuinely puzzled and pained by his frequent appearances in Pseuds’ Corner, for instance). He is aware that his habit of selecting a national classic to accompany a tournament, like a gourmet selecting a fine wine to accompany a meal (he takes Pessoa to Portugal, Seferis to Greece, Sei Shonagan to Japan) will strike some as absurd, but he cannot understand why.

Most writers about sport, however high-browed, have, lurking somewhere at the back of their minds, a minatory chorus of stick-giving mates (from the terraces, or the Rugby Club bar), who must be placated with, at least, one layer of self-deflating irony. Barnes, on the other hand, seems to worry that his literary friends will think he is wasting his time writing about sport at all, that he is not being pretentious enough. This is partly, I think, because, unlike Gray, whose first experience of sport was the entirely typical one of being taken to the football (in his case, at Ayresome Park) by his Dad, Barnes seems to have discovered sport by himself, and comparatively late in life. He is not, even subconsciously, worried about what his mates at the football will think, because he never had any. And this, I think, takes us back from the particular to the typical, and my putative Barnes-Gray Scale.

Barnes, as I have suggested, is interested in sport in the abstract, and in, as well as professionally obliged to write about, all sports (if I wanted to risk a trip to Pseuds’ Corner myself, I might suggest he sees particular sports as the phenomenal manifestation of the noumenal essence of sport itself). This does not mean that he likes them all equally (he thinks golf is “silly” and hates boxing). At one point he lists the fifty greatest sporting events of his life : eight are from football, six athletics, five cricket, four from rugby, horseracing and tennis ; there are also entries from basketball, American football, equestrianism, sailing and boxing. What he dislikes is what he terms the “monoculture” of English sport, the “notion that only football matters”. It is possible that Gray is interested in sports other than football, but there is only a passing mention of them in his book ; I am sure he does not believe, as Barnes alleges, that “to admit to a liking for any sport other than football is a confession that you are homosexual”, but I doubt he thinks of any as more than a temporary diversion from the main event.

Other sports do intrude rudely, once, into Gray’s monocultural world in the shape of the 2012 London Olympics. For Barnes, the Olympics represent the apex of sport, the essence of sport, because it is, variously, “a feast of really big fuckers” (an allusion to Hunter S. Thompson’s attorney), because it attracts “10,000 journalists … 10,000 artists, all trying to grapple with beauty and immensity”, because it is “the greatest of all sporting events” and so on (his veneration for the Olympics is one of the leitmotifs that weave in and out of his narrative).

For Gray, “watching handball at midnight suddenly seemed like a rational activity. In itself, that was fine. Delightful, in fact. Then they went for our sport.” He quotes Geoffrey Wheatcroft writing of football as a sport “which sometimes looks like a game owned by crooks and despots and played by racists and rapists” and responds that Wheatcroft is “writing of top-end Premier League, of multi-millionaire players. That is not my game … It is not the football that unites post-industrial towns when so much else is lost to them … Neither is it the football that acts as a social lubricant when I am at a wedding or in the workplace … Rowing and equestrian, incidentally, are none of these things. Yes, I can do class prejudice too.” (Given that “rowing and equestrian” are two of Barnes’ favourites, this might be a rare example of their two worlds colliding.)

The Olympics are only the biggest of the “really big fuckers” that Barnes writes about : in the space of two years he does not seem to have watched any sport below the level of one of the bigger Premier League games. Gray, on the other hand, spurns the one opportunity he has to watch a top-level game : when his schedule should have taken him to Liverpool, he decides, instead, to visit (of all places) Newquay (“ending with a Premier League game would be like finishing a happy, wholesome, happy marriage with a cocaine-fulled orgy”). Whereas Barnes is, in the most benign sense of that vexed term, an elitist, Gray is not only indifferent to elite sport, but actively hostile to it.

It is possible that Barnes was only contractually obliged to write about the great events and spent his days off watching Ryman League football, but I doubt whether he would see the point, or be able to find any meaning in it. For him (and this is another leitmotif) sport is about greatness, or, as he puts it (in a passage that teeters on the brink of self-parody):

It [a tennis match between Sampras and Agassi] was the clearest possible demonstration of the difference between very, very good – and great. And, as I seek constantly a good tale to tell, so I seek – almost for private reasons, for personal rather than public gratification – greatness, I seek an understanding of greatness. I seek, perhaps, the highest thing of all, to write greatness : and write it true. But, above all, I seek to be where greatness is.”

or, again :

Greatness is a great word in sport, a great concept. In a sense, sport is all about greatness : the search for greatness, the falling short from greatness, the rare, rare achievement of greatness. Greatness is elusive of definition …”

and so on. Whatever Gray is looking for when he travels to Burnley or Crewe, it cannot be greatness ; in fact, he rarely makes any comment on, or even seem to notice, the quality of the game he has come to see.

For Barnes, greatness is an individual quality. When he writes about team games, he boils them down, reduces them to the stories of individuals : “at the heart of the story of the Ashes was the story of Andrew Flintoff : the Man Who Changed” ; Liverpool won the European Cup Final because “One man refused to accept the things that were happening before him. Steven Gerrard didn’t like reality … so he changed it.” When he tries to sum up what sport is all about, discover its quintessence, he gives it the name of an individual (the rower, Steve Redgrave).

Redgrave is not only a person. Redgrave is a quality. Napoleon would ask of his generals “has he luck?”. I ask of athletes “Has he Redgrave?”.”

Gray has so little interest in individuals that he does not once name the players in the matches he sees (which he could have discovered by buying a programme). I can work out that Sheffield United’s “beanstalk forward” who will “end the season in prison for rape” must be Ched Evans, and can have a stab at one or two others, but otherwise they remain anonymous. It is not, though, that he is interested in the team (as in team-work, team-spirit or tactics) ; he is interested in the club. The team is a particular collection of individuals at a given moment in time ; the club is a collective entity that transcends time (always changing, always mysteriously the same) and (as any football fan will tell you) it is the fans that make the club. A team is a managerial entity ; a club a social one.

Barnes repeatedly, and deliberately, distances himself from any notion of belonging. The first section finds him in a cafe in Portugal, reading Pessoa’s “Book of Disquiet”, in the company of “men with very little hair and very considerable bellies. This evening England play Croatia : if they (should I say we? Definitely not) win or draw …”. At Wimbledon, at the height of Henmania, he concedes that “I am no more like these tennis followers than I am like the football people I scowled at in Lisbon”. He explains his dislike of golf by his “media-pinko” parents’ “dislike of suburban values … and clubbability : no. Not my way”. “I wasn’t brought up with the nation of supporting a football club … Perhaps fanship is like acquiring language : it has to be done at a certain, and very young age, or it simply doesn’t happen” ; “Do I sound like an Arsenal supporter here? I am not. I am a supporter, I suppose, not of Juventus, but of juventus …” and, a phrase he repeatedly employs,My patriotism for the nation of excellence …”.

If Barnes is, in his own eyes, the cat who walks alone (all teams are alike to him), for Gray the search for a sense of belonging is the whole point of football, the whole meaning of sport. In his conclusion, he writes :

Away from the jaded cynicism of its highest reaches it [football] remains a social movement I am honoured to be part of. Down in the provinces, it is affordable and accessible. Contrary to my fears, young people are still catching the bug. No computer game can beat the thrill of … being an active part in a bustling community of interest … in an England of flux, where no job is certain, families break up or live far apart, community or church is loose or weak, football is more important than ever. It breeds belonging in an uncertain world.

What is striking is how mutually exclusive their two worlds seem. Barnes spends 365 pages looking for the meaning of sport, and never thinks of looking where Gray finds it, either physically (in Crewe) or mentally. Sport, in all its 158 Barnesian aspects, scarcely seems to exist for Gray, except as a pretext for something else. Although Barnes nods to the contemporary pieties about race and gender, he is essentially apolitical : Gray is political in the both the obvious sense (he is an ex-member of the SWP, he is angry about Hillsborough and Thatcher, he writes about the Chartists and the post-war Luton riots) and the more radical sense that he discovers the meaning of football in the civic, the social, a matter of the polity.

You might, I suppose, extrapolate from this a divided nation, and there is certainly an aspect to their differences which is to do with regionality and class. Barnes (a middle class product of the South London suburbs) is an authentic example of a minority who are genuinely globalised, individualistic, floating free from inherited attachments and historic resentments : Gray, self-consciously working class and Northern (his family “miners turned bus drivers” from Teeside via Yorkshire), sees football as a way to cling to them.

But that, I suspect, is a rather weak correlation (there must be many working-class Barnses and middle-class Grays), and most of us are neither purely Barnes nor Gray, but somewhere on a scale between the two. Surprisingly, perhaps, I would place myself somewhere nearer Gray’s end (I am mostly indifferent to sports other than cricket, football and rugby, often irritated by the Olympics, not overly preoccupied by greatness (which is just as well, given the teams I support), more attached to clubs than individuals, and am less interested in sport for sport’s sake than as a pretext for other things (though those other things are not quite the same as Gray’s). I do, though, exhibit more of (to use his formulation) the quality of Barnes when it comes to cricket, the sport I know and care about the most.

If you have a moment, you might find it amusing to try to place yourself somewhere along my scale.