Football Read Review: Richer than God by David Conn

A BELATED review, perhaps, but this fine book by one of the best football writers around deserves reassessment. With Manchester City now, indeed, richer than most sporting entities on the planet, David Conn’s take on the rise of the club he’s supported since childhood is interesting.

You get the feeling that Conn has a personal battle over his City. He’s a man who cares about the place he comes from, weeps for its decline, but he follows a club that has become the epitome of the modern elitist football institution. Like many fans, he loves the success, but questions the moral aspect of an absent owner from a different part of the world buying a football club as an asset class.

That aside, Conn’s City story, while similar in some ways to other fan stories, is more balanced and objective than almost every attempt at describing the bilateral relationship between fan and club. He wasn’t around when City won the league in 1968, but he suffered, like all Maine Road regulars, as successive regimes made a cock-up of the club, making it one of the great under-achievers in the football world. 

City, in the late 1970s through to the pre-Abu Dhabi period, seemed like a mess, which allied to the success at Old Trafford in the 1990s and 2000s, must have made life unbearable for City die-hards.

Refreshingly, though, there’s very little rival hate in the book, something which taints many fan-written books, but then Conn is one of the most respected journalists around, as evidenced by his alignment to the families of Hillsborough victims.

This is an outstanding book, one that should be a blueprint for anyone wanting to write about their club. Very few fan relationships are different – they are often a tale of over-expectation, irrational behaviour, failure to prioritise what’s really important in life and a lack of understanding of how clubs are run. Conn, admittedly an informed professional, avoids that well-worn path. However, having ended at 2012, this story has another chapter and Conn’s interpretation of the City era will be worth reading. We await “Still richer than God”.

Richer than God by David Conn is published by Quercus


Oh, Hillsborough – media reaction

FOR the families of the 96 people that died at Hillsborough, there can never be any peace. That seems to be the conclusion from the latest twist in a tragedy that refuses to deliver closure for the mourners.

At some point, it may end, when the grieving relatives either gain satisfaction or there simply isn’t anyone left to stand trial, but the acquittal of David Duckenfield is likely to keep the flame burning for some time.

David Conn of The Guardian,  who has stood side-by-side with the relatives of the 96 for years, said the verdict was another example of the Hillsborough families being let down by the legal system. He called it one of the longest and saddest trials ever seen. Duckenfield was found not guilty of manslaughter although he had admitted some of his actions had contributed to the deaths of the Liverpool fans at the Leppings Lane end of the stadium.

Tony Evans, a Liverpool fan and journalist, commented in The Guardian that the verdict “defies logic” and that Duckenfield, who ordered the gates to be opened before the FA Cup semi-final, made “a catastrophic and deadly error”. Duckenfield blamed Liverpool fans for breaking into the stadium, which Evans described as the “cowardly deceit” that set the tone for everything that followed – “the founding myth of Hillsborough”. Actually, this myth still prevails – many football fans wrongly believe the root cause was partly attributable to the storming of the gates, despite the passing of time. “Duckenfield was throwing the blame and trying to avoid the responsibility for a decision that caused the carnage,” insisted Evans. Attendees at the subsequent press conference described Duckenfield as “a coward and a liar and a disgrace to the uniform”.

The Liverpool Echo  reported the comments made by Margaret Aspinall, the chair of the Hillsborough Family Support Group, “I blame the system that is so morally wrong within this country, that is a disgrace to this nation. When 96 people, that say 95 but we say 96, were unlawfully killed and yet no one person is accountable. We all know who is guilty, the families know who is guilty, the city knows who is guilty.”

Interestingly, Matthew Syed of The Times reported that “Hillsborough is too big a tragedy to be pinned on shoulders of one man.”

Syed takes the reader back to 1989 and how football was perceived: “As slum sport played in slum stadiums increasingly watched by slum people.” David Conn highlighted that Hillsborough stadium was hopelessly ill-equipped and unsafe, but people should remember that Sheffield Wednesday’s ground, at that time, was considered one of the best in the land. It was a different time with different standards.

Syed described Hillsborough as part of the “culture of neglect” that also caused the Bradford City fire and Kings Cross fire. “Fans were herded like animals into all-standing pens, crush barriers were corroded and fractured and many were below the minimum recommended height. Gates in the perimeter fencing were too narrow and too few.”

The fans at Hillsborough were trapped by the fencing deemed essential in an age of hooliganism. In truth, Hillsborough was a disaster waiting to happen, a combination of neglect, the adversarial position taken by the authorities to football fans, as well as the game’s rusting, out-of-date facilities.

Syed’s report pointed out that Duckenfield acted after being told by Superintendent Roger Marshall that someone would die in the crush outside the ground if he failed to open the exit gates. “The jury concluded – wisely, in my view – that Duckenfield’s actions, taken under pressure in the most invidious of circumstances, can only be seen as part of a broader chain of events.”

The jury felt it would be unjust to blame such a multifactorial disaster on one man. Syed acknowledged that Duckenfield had lied, but he was being tried not on the charge of telling untruths but on serious criminal misjudgements during the event. He concluded: “The greatest tribute to the memory of the deceased is not to scapegoat a retired officer, but to learn the broader lessons of one of our nation’s defining tragedies.”

Sources: The Times, The Guardian, BBC, Liverpool Echo