I stumbled on this book, subtitled One Man’s Odyssey Through The Lower Leagues Of English Football , while I was doing a bit of research for my next Jarrod Black novel. The premise of the book was right up my alley and it had a few reviews, mostly good, so I trusted my instinct and found a copy on Book Depository that wasn’t going to charge me double to send from the UK to Australia.
Ben Smith’s autobiography arrived in time for my birthday and after sitting on top of a pile of unread football books after curiously reading the first few pages while I waited for my Covid jab, the itch overcame me and I dived right in. Sydney had just gone into lockdown, the Euro 2020 games didn’t start until 2am, so there was quality reading time to be had.
I don’t know Ben Smith, and as suggested in the inside cover, I’d never heard of him – his career started as I left the UK. So, this was going to be almost a fiction read for me. The early part of the book was tinged with a sad story from a junior game in Milton Keynes which involved a fatality, and that was quite a way to start the story, and quite a way to start a football career. Signing for Arsenal, things looked rosy and this could have been the start of a traditional autobiography of success and name-dropping, but from then on, the title of the book came into play and the frequent transfers brought home the reality of being a ‘nearly’ man of English football.
The good. I’ve got to say, I really enjoyed this read. Maybe it’s just the subject matter, the frequent mentions of faraway outposts in the lower divisions and non-league pyramid of England and Wales, but there was something about this book that struck a chord. The detailing of the contract negotiations was fascinating, and the figures involved, and the fact that every season was different made this lengthy book a real easy read. For such a big thick book (368 pages), it was engaging. The introduction of a second thread to the story, where our man talks through some challenging moments in his post-playing life as a teacher, was welcome to give some perspective to the main story. This is a man who accepts that he could and should have done better and looks back with a tinge of disappointment at his young self and the youthful decision-making that blighted his early career.
The not so good. For a book of such length, there was only a couple of times when I couldn’t quite follow – his team were battered by Tranmere in an FA Cup replay (page 193) but then by the next page they’d made it to the fourth round. His promotion chasing team later went to York City and were one down (page 320), but we didn’t find out how the game finished. Some reading between the lines implied that it had been a draw. It was either a smart piece of writing or something was edited out, I can’t decide. I’m impressed, as an author who hates to find mistakes after editing, that there was only a ‘think’ instead of a ‘thing’ that I could find, or that I noticed, in all 368 pages. (Page 274 paragraph 2 if you’re looking!). I truly understand the repetitive process that is the editing stage, and I salute Ben Smith for producing a well crafted piece of writing.
The final chapter is a blunt summary of his football career. We know throughout the book that he should have done better and should have applied himself more in his early years, and the story ends with that admission. There are some light moments throughout though – how he stuck with Steve Evans as a manager for so long is a mystery, and I’ll never look at Minstrels or chocolate raisins again without thinking about this book.
I’ll keep a lookout for the name now, and there is a bit of writing about the author online, such as here where he candidly discusses life after football. I’d like to congratulate Ben Smith on giving us something a little different and being brave enough to put his whole story out there, warts and all. I’m sure there are those who would say the book is too long or there are better books about journeymen footballers out there, but I haven’t read one and I’m absolutely delighted to have given this a read.