“Some say that professional football is a very dull subject about which to write. But that is all a point of view; the national sport of any country must have a wonderful human interest and if there was not something inspiriting and stimulating about Big Football the great sporting public would not throng in their countless thousands to the matches every Saturday.” Sydney Horler (1922)

“I have proved from experience that the people who go in their millions to football matches are not willing to spend money on buying books dealing with their favourite sport.” Sydney Horler (1933)

Very little by way of significant fiction either in print, on stage or on screen has been produced involving Association Football since professionalism was introduced in the mid-1880s. Why this is so, when US (or US-dominated) sports such as baseball, basketball, American football and boxing have inspired such a rich harvest of novels and films remains a mystery. 

It’s been mooted that because most of the fiction produced in this country before 1945 was by middle-class writers, the latter might have considered the working-class world of professional football unworthy of their serious attention. It’s certainly the case that before the First World War the game was the preserve of schoolboy fiction writers in magazines such as The Boy’s Own Paper, Chums, The Boy’s Friend and The Boys’ Realm

Early silent films such as Harry the Footballer (1911), The Cup Final Mystery (1914), and A Footballer’s Honour (1914) were also simple affairs sharing the same basic plot: the hero is kidnapped prior to a big game, is rescued by his girlfriend and arrives in time to score the winning goal. 

On stage, football was the subject of knock-about fun, most notably in Fred Karno’s The Football Match starring Harry Weldon as the drunk and incompetent Stiffy the Goalkeeper1.

In print, only Arnold Bennett in The Card (1910) could be said to have dealt with the professional game in any detail, although his use of football is humorous, even satirical and not central to the plot. Horse racing could boast the prolific Nat Gould (1857-1919) with his gripping and entertaining tales of the turf, while cricket remained beloved of classic authors such as Archibald Macdonell, Anthony Trollope and Thomas Hughes. 

In the 1920s, however, the football industry itself underwent significant changes. New grounds were constructed to accommodate the millions flocking to watch a rejuvenated national sport while attractive sporting journals fed an ever-increasing appetite for football news, gossip and photographs. The prejudice against professionalism that had dogged the game since the 1880s faded to some extent as the Jazz Age got into its stride and individual professional footballers became celebrities on a par with actors and stage performers. 

It was at this point that two quite different writers, Harold Brighouse and Sydney Horler, chose to utilise the game’s gathering appeal to produce football stories aimed squarely at adults, stories that would swiftly be transformed into the game’s first full-length feature films. Examining the fate of their endeavours might provide an alternative explanation to that of simple class-prejudice for the failure of football fiction to attract a mass mature audience.

Harold Brighouse was born in Eccles in 1882 and was educated at Manchester Grammar School before becoming a textile buyer in a shipping merchant’s office. He produced his first play in 1909 for the Gaiety Theatre in Manchester and became a full-time writer of drama, fiction and journalism. His major success came early in his career with his play Hobson’s Choice in 1915, written while he was working for the Air Ministry producing propaganda pieces for the nascent air force. 

Brighouse wrote plays that often had a Lancashire setting and became associated with what was called the Manchester School along with his friend Stanley Houghton, whose great dramatic success was Hindle’s Wake. They both wrote about the daily lives of ordinary Lancashire people, not always in a flattering way. Nevertheless, Brighouse rejected the idea that the overriding theme of the School’s work was grey and gloomy, like the Manchester weather. Instead, he and Houghton were writing “human comedies”and Brighouse’s The Game, written in 1914, would fall squarely into that genre. “[It] is…aimed at making people laugh,”he said in an introduction to its eventual publication in 1920.

The Game’s story line is a straightforward one. A star professional centre-forward for Blackton Rovers FC, Jack Wetherall, is placed in an invidious position when his club’s chairman first sells him to a powerful rival, Birchester United, and then immediately attempts to entice him into throwing a crucial match between the two teams that would ensure the survival of his former club. The matter is complicated by the fact that Wetherall is about to marry the same chairman’s daughter – against the wishes of his own mother. He refuses to be bribed, even when it is made clear that permission to marry said daughter is dependent on his acquiescence in the crooked arrangement. During the crucial game, however, he breaks his arm and has to leave the field. With Blackton leading, it appears to many that the injury has been contrived and that he is indeed throwing the game, despite his earlier refusal. Indignant, he forces his way back onto the pitch and heads the winner for Birchester. The final act sees his mother relentingly agreeing to the marriage and all ends happily.

The play was performed briefly in Liverpool in 1914 but the onset of war spelled an end to theatre-land for its duration. In 1920, however, on the back of his worldwide success with Hobson’s Choice, Brighouse re-worked The Game for a London premiere prior to a nationwide tour. Simultaneously, a prestigious British film company was busy turning it into a major feature film but the film would eclipse the stage version in certain crucial respects. 

When The Game opened at the King’s Theatre, Hammersmith in September 1920, the reviews were lukewarm. The Manchester Guardian found the acting “curiously amateurish” while “the dialect spoken on the stage has no local habitation”. The principal problem for a number of critics, however, was the central character, Jack Wetherall. 

Brighouse had created an “erudite professional footballer” who wanted to improve his mind by reading classics such as Ruskin, Carlyle, Browning and even Plato. His fiancée, on the other hand, being an educated middle-class girl, eschewed such effete strivings, insisting that the excitement of football was more to her taste. Why, she asks him, do you want to waste your time on such boring subjects as literature and philosophy when you have the thrills and spills of professional football to enjoy? It’s an interesting clash of the classes with the heroine having the majority of the good lines, but Jack ultimately comes across as something of a mother’s boy, a lion on the football pitch but a lamb when it comes to making love to a high-spirited, liberated young twenties flapper. Set in the context of what the Observer saw as a traditional melodrama, this complicated tug-of-love seemed out of place. The Stage reviewer concluded that, while there was much to please the average playgoer, “those who go with memories of Hobson’s Choice will feel a twinge of disappointment.”

As the curtain fell in Hammersmith and The Game set out on its tour of regional theatres, less than a mile away in his Richmond studios the film-maker George Berthold Samuelson was busy putting the finishes touches to his celluloid version. It was to be a “Samuelson Super Production”, clearly designed to exploit football’s burgeoning popularity.

Samuelson was a pioneer of the British film industry and his version of Brighouse’s play would be one of a number of sporting movies his company would make in the early 1920s. Without the finances to employ top film stars, Samuelson relied on a regular group of players when casting for the film. These included the strikingly attractive Maudie Dunham to play the girlfriend along with the experienced actors Haidee Wright as the disapproving mother and Tom Reynolds as the player’s uncle. Where the question of Brighouse’s incongruous thinking footballer Jack Wetherall was concerned, however, Samuelson made an astute move by selecting a prominent professional player called Harold Walden for the role. 

Walden was no ordinary footballer. Born in India where his father was serving with the Cheshire regiment of the British Army, he lied about his age in order to enlist in his father’s former regiment when he was only 14 years old. Upon leaving the army he was signed by Bradford City but under FA rules he was not allowed to turn professional for 12 months. He was thus free to play as an amateur for the Great Britain team at the 1912 Olympics where he scored six goals in one match and a total of eleven in the tournament, establishing a British Olympic scoring record which remains unbeaten. After further army service in the First World War he briefly joined Arsenal before returning to Bradford where he ended his playing career. By then he’d started a new life on the music hall stage as a variety performer. He developed an act called “The Anaemic Footballer” in which he came on stage sporting a kiss curl above a pallid white face wearing the claret and amber shirt of Bradford City and carrying a small football. His outsize long shorts were worn at half-mast and his football boots looked much too big for him. He would launch into some simple comic patter before singing one of the musical pieces he’d created for the ukulele, such as “Only Me Knows Why,” which became his signature tune. 

When the film was released, Walden turned out to be the star-turn. Although the Bioscope claimed that, “Mr Harold Walden scores more by his prowess on the field than by his histrionic talents,” everyone else felt that he was perfect for the part. Walden was helped by the fact that, it being a silent film, he wasn’t burdened with the task of delivering lines or adopting any sort of accent. The Kinematograph Weekly commented, “Harold Walden makes a quite unusual hero – a nervous young man who allows himself to be made love to – but his performance suits the part,” and the Times critic agreed: “The part of the footballer hero is very well played by an heroic footballer, Mr Harold Walden, and this idea of employing somebody who really knows something of the kind of part he is called upon to play seems worthy of encouragement provided, of course, that he knows how to act as well.”

The change of emphasis from the stage play was even more obvious in the re-titling: The Game became The Winning Goal as the focus switched from the confines of the theatre to the open spaces of the football arena. For the film’s climactic football match, directed by Samuelson using a megaphone from the centre of Brentford’s Griffin Park ground, the company employed no fewer than 22 top-class professional players. These included seven of that season’s title-winning West Bromwich Albion team, including the League’s top-scorer Fred Morris; two from the seasons’s FA Cup winners Tottenham Hotspur, plus the popular international stars Dickie Bond, Sam Hardy, Alf Quantrill, Frank Barson, Harry Hampton and Ted Vizard. The Chelsea and England centre-forward Jack Cock also starred. Owing to his good looks and tenor voice, Cock had already appeared on the music-hall stage many times; in fact, during his playing days, he was known for singing as he entered the pitch, a device that appealed to many female admirers in the stands.

By and large the film appears to have been a success. “Brilliantly cinematographed,” said the Biograph while the Times enthused, “The football match is unusually well done and the employment of professional players who know their business has meant the absence of stupid details which make some football films impossible. ”It was, “a real football match on a real football ground with a real football crowd and real football teams.” By contrast, however, the Burnley News critic dismissed the football scenes as “necessarily farcical”.

It’s hard to assess its overall quality as no copies remain but Samuelson was not noted for subtlety. In fact, his cinematic style was already considered out-of-date and his fondness for spectacle was regularly undermined by cost-cutting and poor technique. Although the Kinematograph Weekly declared it, “a winner without any doubt”, the same critic still felt that the film lacked “visual appeal” and that the climax was marred by “the irritating intrusion of close-ups”. Brighouse himself was certainly not impressed, restricting himself to the simple comment in his biography that Samuelson’s creation had been “workmanlike”.

Brighouse once said that he was more interested in “the investigation of character”rather than “the unfolding of a story”. In The Game he had afforded the professional footballer his debut as an acceptable dramatic hero: Jack Wetherall was a flawed individual with aspirations beyond the field of play and preyed upon by others whose demands conflicted with those aspirations. His determination to “play the game” and resist the temptations offered (winning the girl and saving his old club) arose from a sense of his own integrity as a professional player. Ironically, however, Brighouse discovered that the character had to be played by a real professional in order for it to be successful. 

By coincidence, in this same year of 1920 a very different writer was trying his luck with the same subject, only this time in prose. Sydney Horler’s Goal! was published with little fanfare by the newly-formed Odhams Press as part of their Popular Library series which comprised cheap hard-backs aimed squarely at adults. Other titles in the series included Behind the German Lines, The Girl Who Stopped The War and White Snow: The Confessions of a Cocaine Taker By A Young Actress. The reviewer for John O London’s Weekly declared Horler’s novel, “the first work of fiction entirely devoted to our great national pastime of football”, adding, “I should not be surprised if football novels have a great vogue. It is significant that the film companies are already beginning to exploit the game to some purpose.”

Horler was a 32-year-old London-born journalist who’d spent the years after leaving school at 14 working on a variety of publications ranging from the Bristol Evening News to the boys’ magazine The Captain. By a twist of fate, he’d also found himself during the First World War working in the same Air Ministry department in London as Harold Brighouse but had spent his time sorting out photographs rather than writing propaganda. 

His first piece of adult sporting fiction written in 1919 was based on tennis. It appeared in the Strand Magazine and led to an offer from the News of the World to write one based on boxing. However, being married by this time and with no job, he needed to find steady work. Horler later wrote, “At that time I was casting around in my mind for a regular source of fiction material. I hadn’t seen a professional football match since my school days but Lady Luck now led me to the ground of a professional football club once again [to Craven Cottage to watch Fulham play Bristol City]. Directly I saw the scarlet jerseys of the team whose fortunes I had so passionately followed as a youngster something like 20 years slipped away from my shoulders as I became a schoolboy again. Then came the inspiration: no-one, apart from boys’ comic writers, had ever turned England’s greatest national sport, professional football, into fiction. So I resolved to have a shot at the thing myself…”

In fact, Horler had already contributed football stories to those same boys’ comic papers. In 1919 he’d written a six-part serial for Chums entitled “The Ginger Genius”, followed in November the same year by another serial for The Boys’ Realm called “The Lightning Left” featuring a player called Rex Hartley. What he was now trying to do was lift the juvenile football narrative onto an adult plane. 

His literary inspiration was a US short-story writer called Charles E van Loan who in the immediate pre-First World War days had perfected a formula that was to make his fortune. Writing mainly about baseball, he created fiction using a combination of insider information, humour and intrigue. His central character, Buck Parvin, would become a national institution. Horler, while readily admitting that he did not possess a fraction of Loan’s abilities, hoped to follow suit. He wrote, “I imagined I could get some of the humorous angles and human interest twists [from soccer] which my mentor had turned to such wonderful use in writing about baseball.”

Unfortunately, humour (of the intentional sort, at least) was one of those literary qualities Horler did not possess. When Horler obtained a contract to supply the Burnley Express with a series of football stories in 1922, the newspaper adverts described Horler as, “The Nat Gould of Football,”and he would soon emulate Gould where sales and productivity were concerned.

Goal! was written in lodgings in Weston-super-Mare in February 1920 and its plot establishes a template that Horler would stretch and manipulate many times in subsequent novels before it finally came apart at the fictional seams. 

The hero Richard Marr, a penniless son of a once wealthy man, meets Johnny Bell, an old international who’d trained him when Marr was playing centre-forward for the Oxford University team. Bell suggests Marr takes up playing football for a living, so he signs on for lowly Hollywood Football Club, who are in debt to a shady businessman called Fairfax Stopford. The latter is only funding the club in the expectation that Margery Kirkby, a pretty young supporter, will marry him. When he realises that Margery and Marr are becoming amorously connected, Stopford threatens to bankrupt the club by calling in his loans but the club’s supporters rally round and pay off the debts. The team, with Marr now starring as centre-forward, then embarks on a Cup run during which Marr defies the opposition of Margery’s guardian to him as a suitable husband for her while simultaneously thwarting Stopford’s underhand efforts to prevent him from playing in the final. Hollywood win the Cup, Marr gets the girl and Stopford goes to prison. 

Horler recalled that Odhams had been “wildly enthusiastic about its chances” but although it brought him a tremendous amount of publicity and paved the way for innumerable magazine stories, the book did not sell as readily as he had hoped.

Nevertheless, Horler’s football fiction continued and over the six years that followed he produced six novels including The Legend of the League, Life’s a Game, Love, the Sportsman, McPhee, a Football Story and The Ball of Fortune all of which would be serialised in the News of the World. He also penned several syndicated short stories, wrote a football column for the Daily Mail and worked on two film adaptations, all devoted to what he called “Big Football” – i.e. the burgeoning professional game. 

Despite his professional and personal interest in football, however, Horler struggled to develop storylines that more than scratched its surface. Instead, he introduced ever-more outlandish incidents in order to intrigue the reader, a technique designed specifically for newspaper serialisation where the reader must be hooked from one week to the next.

A comparison between Goal! and two of his football novels that followed soon afterwards will demonstrate the point. In Goal!, the only aggravation comes when the hero is knocked out by paid thugs in an attempt to prevent him playing in the final. Two years on, the hero of The Legend of the League is knocked out twice, once on the pitch, a second time in the course of being kidnapped. His love-interest is also kidnapped and threatened with sexual assault and being sold as a white slave while the villain is finally tied to a chair and flogged. There is also an attempt to fix a match by bribing the keeper of the hero’s team. A year later in The Ball of Fortune, the hero is knocked out twice, pricked with a hypodermic needle (twice if one counts a suspicious nail in his football boot) drugged, kidnapped and chloroformed, while his friend is also kidnapped and almost executed by hanging before being saved. Add in the fact that the heroine’s father is being blackmailed by a “good-time girl” known as ‘Cocaine Connie’ and it’s obvious that football is becoming secondary to more sensational themes.

It would be The Ball of Fortune, however, that would be turned into a full-length feature film in 1926. Made for Booth Grange’s Mercury Film Service production company in Leeds, the action sequences featured the full Leeds United team plus their trainer and were shot at United’s Elland Road ground. Even one of the club’s directors had a minor role. 

The story-line runs as follows. A penniless amateur footballer, Dick Huish, finds himself forced to turn professional when his legacy is squandered by his scheming relatives, the Brighursts. His cousin Daniel Brighurst has designs on Dick’s sweetheart, Mary Wayne, who happens to be the daughter of the chairman of Dick’s new club. The Brighursts subsequently try various ways of eliminating Dick and also attempt to blackmail the chairman, but are foiled by a combination of Dick’s determination to find out the truth concerning his father’s lost fortune and the sleuthing of a local lawyer who befriends Dick. The Yorkshire Post reviewer summed up the denouement: “There are half a hundred other complications but in the end the hero not only saves his team from relegation to the Second Division by a brilliant bit of work on the field but also comes into his own.”

The cast was by no means second-rate. Mary Wayne was played by a petite blonde actress called Mabel Poulton who was well used to portraying feisty or mischievous characters. She would later star with Ivor Novello in the hit film The Constant Nymph and cause a stir by insuring her eyes for £30,000. Dick Huish was played by James Knight, who’d begun his stage career touring music halls as a wrestler. An all-round sportsman, he was a handsome and athletic-looking hero. John Longden, who played a heavy who tries to drug Dick, would subsequently feature in five films directed by Alfred Hitchcock, most notably as the male lead in Blackmail in 1929. Dorothy Boyd played Cocaine Connie, “a girl who belonged to that growing army who have surrendered their souls to the drug fiend.” She would also be cast by Hitchcock in his feature Easy Virtue (1928). Nevertheless, just as with the film version of Brighouse’s The Game, a real-life professional footballer who would turn out to be the The Ball of Fortune’s star attraction. 

Billy Meredith was the best-known footballer in Britain in the 1920s even though he’d begun his career in 1894. A star player for Manchester United and Manchester City before the First World War and a Wales international since the 1890s, Meredith was still playing in the early 1920s and almost reached a Wembley Cup Final in 1923 at the age of 49. Suspended for bribery in 1906, a founder member of the Players Union in 1908, a peerless ball-player and the darling of cartoonist’s everywhere with his trademark toothpick and bandy legs, Meredith was a living legend if ever there was one. 

He had already featured in Horler’s fiction in The Legend of the League, albeit thinly disguised as Billy Millington: “With one action he not only swept the ball forward, but brought it under control – here was ball pedipulation of the highest class – and with that loping run familiar to football audiences England-wide, blazed a trail to the corner flag…”. He also features in the novel of The Ball of Fortune as Sam Toucher, an ageing wizard of the wing who is instrumental in providing the crosses for the hero Dick Huish to bang into the net. 

Hugh Croise, the film director and a much respected cinema veteran, however, discarded the pretence for the celluloid version and Meredith played himself. As such he would be prominently featured on posters and in adverts. He was also on hand for the movie’s trade showing at Manchester’s Piccadilly Picture Theatre in May 1926 while an assortment of his memorabilia was displayed in the windows of the film’s northern distributors. The resulting curious crowds caused an obstruction on the pavement when the display was unveiled, providing a tremendous publicity boost for the film that was trumpeted as, “a sensational football feature in six reels” and which was well-received up and down the country.

Croise appears to have captured the football action far more successfully than any previous director (the film’s advertisements declared, “See Billy Meredith’s Wonderful Touch-Line Runs”), certainly surpassing those featured in the film of Brighouse’s play The Winning Goal. The Yorkshire Evening Post film critic commented, “How often have we laughed when we were not intended to laugh at the way supposedly British games were reproduced on the American films? Football has figured in these and now, almost for the first time, we have a really satisfactory football film. I am glad to learn that it is being booked with far more than the usual success all over the North of England. The one and only Billy Meredith takes a principal part.”

Like Brighouse, Horler wasn’t impressed by the film version of his story. In 1932 he wrote, “Two of my stories when seen on the flickering screen were almost, if not quite, the worst exhibitions of cinematographic art that has ever been inflicted on the public.”In The Ball of Fortune, he commented, “the only decent piece of acting was accomplished by an amateur,” while he considered Mabel Poulton“ not my idea of a screen heroine”.

Horler had harboured grand ambitions where the cinema was concerned. His American mentor Loan had overseen a series of wildly successful silent film comedy shorts while seven of Nat Gould’s novels had been made into films between 1916 to 1920. Other contemporary novelists such as Edgar Wallace, Arnold Bennett and, significantly, Harold Brighouse, had been invited to Hollywood (the real one, not the fictional football club). Horler revealed in his autobiography in 1933: “Some years ago when I sat in the office of the scenario editor of British International Pictures, he told me that they had been looking for some time for a football subject to hand over to their producer Hitchcock. ‘What about my own stories?’ I returned. He smiled. It was a peculiarly offensive smile and I have not forgotten it.”

By then, however, Horler had all but abandoned football fiction as a genre. It was, he declared, “an unprofitable fictional subject.” In 1927 the News of the World publisher Emsley Carr had suggested that he write a straightforward thriller, ditching the sporting context. He subsequently produced The Mystery of Number One, which was a great success. Henceforth, Horler would join the ranks of those million-selling low-brow authors such as Edgar Wallace, John Buchan, Sax Rohmer and Angela Brazil, all of whom dominated the bookshops and commercial lending libraries during the inter-war years.

His favourite fictional antagonists were no longer wicked club directors and scowling full-backs but fanatic Germans and Fu Manchu-type megalomaniacs, many of whom were given sobriquets such as ‘the Disguiser’, ‘the Colossus’, ‘the Mutilator’, ‘the Master of Venom’ and ‘the Voice of Ice’. It was an impressive list that included mad scientists, American gangsters, vampires, giant apes, ape-men from Borneo, venal dwarfs, slavering ‘Things’, a man born with the head of a wolf and, perhaps his crowning achievement, a bloodsucking, man-eating bush.

Horler explained: “The vast wealth of action and excitement from which ‘shockers’ can be fashioned is limitless whereas in football such opportunities are soon exhausted.”For someone who came to depend on ever more unlikely scenarios with which to keep his readers interested, one can see his point.

Horler was always honest about his achievements. Unlike Brighouse, he maintained that he wasn’t interested in writing “psychological” novels. “Give me a pretty girl, a likeable young man, a Bentley car and a spot of trouble round the corner – then I’m working at my trade.” It’s hardly surprising, therefore, that he struggled to create a significant fictional football hero. 

Over the years, the best he managed was an eccentric trainer called Angus McPhee, “an uncouth angular being with woollen gloves, an unbelievable hat and the general air of a non-conformist pastor”, described by his publishers as the first real character in football fiction. However, McPhee was neither funny nor glamorous enough to be memorable and when Horler eventually came up with ‘Tiger’ Standish, a football-playing amateur sleuth, the stories in which he featured would contain little if any professional football. It was the real Billy Meredith, either thinly disguised or in person, who afforded Horler his biggest football fiction successes. Horler needed Billy Meredith just as Brighouse needed Jack Cock and Harold Walden for their work to capture a mass audience. And therein perhaps lies a clue as to why so few writers have utilised professional football as a setting. 

The national game serves up, on a weekly basis, as much fantasy, drama, wish-fulfilment, startling coincidences, heroic failures and last-minute denouements as anyone seeking release from the everyday world could possibly wish for. Fiction simply cannot match it. What’s more, the serial saga that is professional football continues to be populated by an array of larger-than-life individuals whom writers of fiction have struggled for a century to match. 

Brian Glanville, considered by many to be the best writer of football fiction since the Second World War, produced two novels featuring fictional players, the first being the centre-forward Gerry Logan in 1965, the second the goalkeeper Len Rawlings in 1976. Fine period pieces though they are, neither character registers today on either the literary or the football psyche. 

Other notable writers in recent years have used the game in various ways. Barry Hines’s A Kestrel for a Knave (1968), BS Johnson’s The Unfortunates (1969), JL Carr’s How Steeple Sinderby Wanderers Won the FA Cup (1975) and John King’s The Football Factory (1996) are all excellent novels, but none of them deal directly with the game and none feature those who actually play it.

The outstanding success of David Peace’s The Damned United (2006) underlines the point. The plot concerns a young, headstrong manager taking over a title-winning side from a legendary and much-loved predecessor but failing as the players reject his attempts to impose his purer version of the game on them and the club. This might not seem particularly inspiring but because it is squarely based on Brian Clough’s calamitous few months as Leeds United’s new manager, both football fans and those with little interest in the game bought the book in their hundreds of thousands. As modernist fiction, of course, Peace’s book is much more than a simple retelling of the facts: it’s a heightened version of reality, or as one critic put it, “a fusion of history and fiction creating a hypo-history, a story under the surface of the known.”

Nevertheless, it’s arguable that had Brian Clough been re-christened Billy Wilson and Leeds United re-titled Headingley Hotspurs, neither book nor film would have succeeded or even caught the imagination to the extent that they did. 

In Ken Loach’s film Looking For Eric, Éric Cantona plays himself as imagined by Eric Bishop, a long-suffering postman. The ever-enigmatic Cantona says at one point: “I am not a man: I am Cantona,” a surreal example of how the professional footballer can assume mythical status. The football we watch and particularly the players we idolise are more than they appear to be. Whether dead or still living, they are the fantastic creations of our own imaginations and as such will continue to usurp the best efforts of writers as diverse as Sydney Horler, Harold Brighouse and Brian Glanville.