Inspiring Young Readers
The Beautiful Game by Alan Gibbons
Football fans are passionate in their love for their club and they follow them through the good times and the bad. Most often children will follow the same club as their parents from one generation to the next and a tribal loyalty gets built that can seem, to the outsider, irrational or intemperate. Sometimes this commitment can spill over into over-exuberance or even bad blood – which is where Alan Gibbons’ new book for younger readers kicks off.
Lennie, his dad and his granddad are Liverpool supporters watching their team play their greatest rivals – Manchester United. The game is going well for Liverpool when the United fans start up with a tasteless and provocative chant about the Hillsborough disaster, when so many innocent Liverpool fans lost their lives. Some Liverpool fans retaliate with an equally offensive chant about the 1958 Munich airplane crash that killed so many of Manchester United’s young stars and Lennie is tempted to join in with the shouting. Lennie’s dad and granddad aren’t impressed and tell him to stop and to show some respect – but Lennie is puzzled; what’s the problem?
This allows Gibbons the chance to break from the story and to explain exactly what Hillsborough and Munich were all about. Supporting your club properly means understanding that your club has a history and this history is not always just about glory but also sometimes about tragedy. So we get information too about other terrible disasters - the Bradford fire, the Heysel Stadium and Ibrox Park tragedies amongst them, written in a straightforward and non-sensationalist way.
Writing well for younger or reluctant readers is a real skill and Gibbons is brilliant at it. Around Lennie’s simple domestic story he is able to introduce complex issues such as racism – Lennie’s family is black – and gender as he has to come to terms with girls who are better footballers than he is. He’s also able to take a swipe at the ‘big business’ that now exploits the football supporter and his dedicated passion for his club. All these complex themes are introduced without unnecessary complexity and without being even remotely patronising – all of them adding to the famous maxim of the former Liverpool manager Bill Shankley when he said that football isn’t a matter of life and death, it’s more important than that.
A word too for Chris Chalik who has provided a handful of full page black and white illustrations for the book - they help make Lennie and his family a three dimensional reality. I also want to acknowledge the fabulous job that the publisher Barrington Stoke does in providing books for what they themselves describe as ‘emergent, reluctant and dyslexic readers' and helping them 'unlock the love of reading.’ Books like this fit the bill perfectly.
Alan Gibbons loves football, he loves Liverpool F.C. and he hates The Sun. He wrote this book as a tribute to honour the victims of Hillsborough as we pass the 28th anniversary of the tragedy – the events will always be raw for those who feel touched by what happened and they will always remember the deceit of the police who tried to cover their ineptitude and incompetence and the newspaper that collaborated with them in blaming the terrible loss of life on the Liverpool fans. This book is both a touching and necessary tribute to these unforgotten victims.
Postscript on the perils of book reviewing
My review of Alan Gibbons' latest book was read by the author who has been kind enought to point out one significant error. I had assumed that he was a fan of Liverpool F.C. - but it turns out he is in fact a massive Manchester United supporter! A pretty basic error but one he entirely understood and has been generous about. Given what I said about the tribal nature of football fans I thought it only right to correct the misplaced assumption and set the record straight..