The Academy Award-nominated writer of the screenplay An Education, the best-selling author of the book High Fidelity, and the Arsenal-obsessed main character of his memoir, Fever Pitch, Nick Hornby is an author whose reach in literary, film, music, and football circles is matchless.
Hornby’s big break was Fever Pitch. A touching and poignant memoir of growing up in England, falling in love with both a woman and a sports team (not in that order), and about losing and finding one’s faith told through a series of football matches from his very first in 1968 to the incredible Arsenal season finale in 1989. And now, twenty years later, and after much success in nearly every other arena, it seems natural that Nick Hornby has returned to write about football.
Pray: Notes on a football season (Riverhead eSpecial; $2.99; available now) is written in the same easy style as Fever Pitch. Matchday by matchday, Hornby takes us back through the most significant moments of the 2011-2012 English football season. From the moment that Carlos Tevez refused to play for his manager to Thierry Henry’s triumphant return for Arsenal to Fabrice Muamba’s near-death collapse on the pitch and on to the thrilling finale in Manchester which saw City lift the title for the first time in 44 years everything is examined through the unique lens of Hornby’s wit and wisdom.
But in typical Hornby style Pray is about more than just the who-did-what of a series football matches. The setting is the game but the stories are the global financial crisis, racism in England, being a sports fan, and the silent prayer that washes over 40,000 normally rabid sports fans as they sit in horror while a vital young man struggles for life in front of their very eyes.
Pray is a welcome return of one of football’s greatest ambassadors and I was lucky enough to get a few minutes of Nick Hornby’s time to answer questions about Pray, about his thoughts on Arsenal, and the changing nature of the game.
7am: Pray reads like the first installment in a serialized novel. Almost like you have set the characters and are laying groundwork for future seasons. There’s our hero, the plucky but underwhelming Arsenal. The villains in the form of the Chelsea, Man U and Man City. Sub plots of racism, just so many stories in one season. What was your intention here with this work? Do you have plans to have a season review every year or was last year so special that it just deserves its own book?
NH: Oh, I’m not sure there was an intention. I was talking to my editor at Penguin UK, who’s a big football fan, and I told him he needed to commission an e-book about the season, because it contained so many incredible stories. And then I realized that I wanted to write it. I haven’t written much about football since the 90s, and so much has happened since, so PRAY allowed me to get some things off my chest.
I suspect that the problem with writing something similar about every season is that the stories aren’t going to change that much. Money will be a huge issue again this year, and racism, too – but we’re unlikely to get a finish as thrilling as last year’s.
7am: The book starts off with a lament about the influx of foreign money (which you refer to as a “Sheikhigarchy“) into English football as the two teams from Manchester thump the two from London, but ends with Man City’s win over QPR and the conclusion that “perhaps the only way that professional sport can become interesting is if every team gets hold of as much (money) as possible.” How can an Arsenal fan reconcile these two seemingly disparate positions?
NH: Ha! Well, being an Arsenal fan doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re also a fan of financial prudence! I didn’t choose to watch them because they’ve drawn some kind of line in the sand – I supported Arsenal long before they decided that self-sustainability was the way forward. The problem that the Premier League has at the moment is that it’s expensive to watch and not very competitive: we’d all be amazed if anyone other than Chelsea, Man City or Man Utd won the league this year, next year, and the year after that. I knew before the season kicked off that I was paying very high prices (nobody pays more, in fact, than Arsenal fans) to watch a team that is aiming for fourth place again. Maybe Financial Fair Play would make a difference, but I was merely pointing out at the end of the book that if everyone had Man City’s money, the league would be more exciting. That’s unarguable, surely?
7am: Would Thierry Henry still be able to help this squad? And if he did return could we please get him his 229th goal back?
NH: I fear that he would be able to help this squad, which of course reflects badly on the squad. It’s interesting how often this is happening, though. Paul Scholes is a vital part of the Man Utd squad after a year in retirement, and at the time of writing it looks as though Drogba may be going back to Chelsea for a few weeks. I’m not sure the Premier League is as robust as people like to make out.
7am: You also hit on this issue of Arsenal’s ambition to finish fourth and how top football clubs don’t take the FA Cup and League Cup seriously anymore, quoting the boss from the year before about how “the Champions League is compulsory, the FA Cup is something for enjoyment.” This is something that Wenger has been saying for years and yet when Wenger said it again at this year’s AGM there was massive uproar. Why does this shock people and why is it that Arsenal are suddenly a “club without ambition?”
NH: It shocks people only because there is now a substantial number of Arsenal fans who want Arsene to go, so they’re using his apparent lack of ambition as a stick to beat him with. And yet if he’d won the League Cup two years ago, when Arsenal lost, shockingly, to Birmingham, nobody would be satisfied now. The last two League Cup-winning managers got the sack at the end of the season, which indicates the low regard that the competition is held by owners – and possibly even fans, seeing as there wasn’t any real outcry about those sackings. Everybody – and I’d probably include the fans in this – wants their team to play in the Champions’ League more than they want them to win a domestic Cup.
The AGM took place against the backdrop of poor results and the sale of Robin Van Persie. But how can it be any different? We’ve sold a couple of our best players every year since the move to the Emirates, and there isn’t much we can do about it. Nobody is going to turn down the chance to double their wages, especially if trophies, big trophies, are more or less guaranteed at the clubs they’re moving to. We have lost players we wanted to keep to Man City, Man Utd, Chelsea and Barcelona - nobody else. If they were going to Spurs, or Everton, or Milan then I’d understand the outcry, but they’re not. And it’s always been like that, my entire supporting life. Frank Stapleton went to Man Utd in 1981. Wenger’s incredible success between 1998 and 2004 has made people forget what Arsenal have been since 1945.
7am: One of the best articles in the book is a piece on the two cases of racism from last year (Terry and Suarez) and the difference between the way the FA and the clubs tried to deal with the players. At the time you were writing, the Terry case was still ongoing but we now have a conclusion and while he was found innocent in court, the FA found him guilty and chose to ban him just 4 games. I’m curious about your thoughts on the way this case has been concluded?
NH: The length of the ban was peculiar. I’m presuming the FA felt that the court case, and the length of time it took for the case to come to trial, provided a different context from the Suarez case, where the law wasn’t involved. I don’t know why people seem to think that his legal innocence has any bearing on the FA’s disciplinary process. Clearly there are different codes of conduct within professional organizations – after all, taking your shirt off to celebrate a goal can result in a loss of earnings, and that’s hardly legally enforceable. And Rio Ferdinand – in one of the more complicated misconduct charges of the year – was fined a lot of money for tweeting “Hahaha”, which would have made for an interesting couple of days in court if he’d chosen not to pay it.
7am: 5-2 against Tottenham, 5-3 against Chelsea, 8-2 Man U, 4-4 Newcastle, 5-7 against Reading, 6-1 for City against United, 5-4 for Chelsea against United all results in the last two years. Can anyone (other than City) play defense anymore?
NH: 5-2 against Tottenham twice, in the same year! These are no longer extraordinary scores, and clearly something in the game has changed profoundly. In the book I suggested that the players are simply too rich to bother with that kind of drudgery, but I suspect that it’s also something to do with the rapid turnover of playing staff, and on top of that the need to rest players. Arsenal used 16 players in four competitions in 1970/71, when they won the Double, of whom 14 were properly involved in the squad. We’re not halfway through this season, yet they’ve already used more than twenty in the Premier League alone, and another dozen or so in the League Cup. And yet defense involves working as a unit, with a goalkeeper. It must be almost impossible to work together effectively if the line-up changes constantly.
7am: A lot of people considered the final game of the season between City and QPR as analogous to Arsenal’s win over Liverpool in 1989, a pivotal event in your memoir Fever Pitch. You called it the most “electrifying” ending since 1989 but steered clear of comparing the two, for good reason. I don’t know if I have a real question here except that I wonder how you react to people making the comparison?
NH: Clearly it was every bit as unbelievable for City fans – and they needed two goals, rather than Arsenal’s one, in the last couple of minutes. Our game was a straightforward head-to-head: the two contenders playing each other in the last game of the season. That never happens. But the big difference, I think, was Arsenal’s underdog status, and Liverpool’s formidable reputation. You didn’t go to Anfield hoping to win, in those days, let alone win by two goals. And I think a lot of the country was rooting for Arsenal to do it, simply because of Liverpool’s dominance over the previous decade. Most neutrals were more ambivalent about City. They were at home, against a struggling team, and they’d spent hundreds of millions on players. And yet if they failed to win, then the trophy went to Man Utd, the biggest team in the world, who’d won it countless times before. So something about it didn’t feel right, even if it was completely enthralling to watch. I think our moment still has the edge. I would say that, though. That’s become the lot of the Arsenal fan - clinging on to old glories! I never really relax into a season until every Premiership team has been beaten once, and our Invincibles record is preserved….
PRAY: Notes on a Football Season
Riverhead eSpecial ($2.99) Available for purchase at most eBook retailers, including Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Apple or directly from the publisher here.
Thanks to the folks from YESNetwork for making this interview possible and especially to Mr. Hornby for taking time to answer questions from some blogger.