In the week that Leicester City turned football upside down by winning the Premier League, the Championship of England, it’s entirely appropriate to re-read and re-relish this extraordinary and prophetic little book about a village team from the arse end of nowhere, with resources that make Leicester look like Real Madrid, winning the FA Cup.
How Steeple Sinderby Wanderers Won the FA Cup was published in 1975, but I didn’t come across it for a couple of years, until either 1978 or 1979. I was living in Nottingham, going to its City Centre Library, and I saw the book and of course the title demanded that I should read it. It made for wonderful reading on a Friday night coach, my regular six week return to Manchester. It was summer, and the sun was long in descending, and I can still picture myself, in a window seat, leaning against the glass as we passed through the villages and small towns near the Nottinghamshire/Derbyshire border, delighting in the implausible (and sometimes insulting) goings on.
Truth is still not quite as marvellous as Fiction, however.
I loved the book, and borrowed it at least a second time, but I never saw it again after I returned to Manchester. It stuck in my mind, and when, many years later, I learned that Carr was now publishing his novels through his own imprint, I kept an eye out for this to reappear from the Quince Tree Press, and determined that I would collect the set of such editions. It would be the fourth publication from Carr’s own publishing enterprise, of which he was so obviously proud.
The Quince Tree edition contains a special foreword by Carr, reproduced from his own neat, unfussy handwriting, ascribing the inspiration for the book to his own experiences in the early Nineteen Thirties, playing a season for a village team that unexpectedly swept all before them and won a Cup they were never expected to aspire to. With a couple of tweaks that enabled Steeple Sinderby to descend towards the barely possible, Carr used that experience to relate his story.
What the story is is obvious from its title. Steeple Sinderby (population approx 300) lies in or on the edge of the Fens. It’s local industry is sugar beet farming and it has a local football team in which selection is on the basis on shouting out on Saturday night, “Who’s available next week?”. As football goes, it’s really only one step up from a kickabout in the park, or a pub team.
The idea that a club of this nature could even progress one Preliminary round into the FA Cup is already fantastic. Carr’s foreword identifies the impulse behind the book as being ‘can I make this impossible thing plausible’, and the glory of the book is that he does.
As he admits himself, he achieves this by salting the club and the village with three, perhaps four great men, each of whom have unusual but plausible, reasons for being in the same place at the same time, and whose combination of characteristics lays grounding for Steeple Sinderby’s progression.
Though football is the book’s raison d’être, it isn’t the purpose of the story. Carr makes this plain at the outset, both in the structure of the story, and explicitly from its narrator.
The story begins at the end. The great Cup win has been and gone and, though we don’t yet quite know it, things are getting back to as normal as possible after the great disruption of everybody’s lives. Joe Gidner, who has been the club secretary throughout, who has been at the heart of everything whilst not being involved in the great events, is to write the Official History, which is to be plain and involve only the truth.
Gidner makes it plain that this is not the Official History. Perhaps its a first draft, or a sketch, but what it is is how he saw everything, how it came about, how it affected everyone, even him.
Gidner’s an interesting narrator. All we learn of his background is that he has left theological college after some incident that he only ever refers to as his trouble. He scrapes a meagre living writing verses for greeting cards, and lives in Steeple Sinderby because of its isolation, and because he has two rooms rent-free, in exchange for ‘some caring for an invalid’.
Gidner is obviously suffering from depression, and is in a very detached state. he’s become Club secretary, handling all the (limited) administration out of a half-impulse to belong, but the football is of no real interest to him, and this allows Carr to distance this, as Gidner uses a combination of eccentric and/or stylised match reports and, in a couple of cases, live commentary of a similar informative nature as a Robbie Savage summary to cover those moments when the actual footballing course of events comes to the fore.
Appropriately enough, the book starts almost as a continuation of The Harpole Report. An Inspector attends the village school, whose head is Dr Kossuth, a Hungarian political exile who has devoted himself to England. Impressed by Kossuth’s methods (unofficially as well as officially) he jokingly comments that Kossuth could probably revolutionise anything he put his mind to. Overhearing this, the teacher, Mr Slingsby (clearly a relative of Slingsby, the bowler in Flanders’ team in A Season in Sinji) asks Kossuth to let the football club have the first benefit of his thinking.
Kossuth is the first of the great men who underpin this novel. He and his beautiful undergraduate Hungarian wife watch both Steeple Sinderby Wanderers and a professional team (synchronicity strikes: it is none other than Leicester City). From these two games, Kossuth determines that, excluding fitness and facilities, there is strikingly little difference between the two teams, and puts forward seven Postulates aimed at minimising those differences and anatomising what a successful football team needs.
I’m not going to start detailing these Postulates, although one of them seems to drastically foreshadow what we nowadays know as gegenpressing, whilst another delineates the vital importance of a shot-stopping goalkeeper to a team, which definitely foreshadows David de Gea.
What these Postulates need is someone to put them into effect, which is where we introduce the book’s second, and in many ways most important great man, the aforementioned Mr Slingsby. Or rather Alex Slingsby, a former professional footballer, who six years before played six games for Aston Villa.
But Slingsby is more than this. Slingsby is a once-in-a-lifetime prodigy, a physical and tactical genius, a natural onfield intelligence. He reminds me of the late Duncan Edwards. Either way, Slingsby had a glowing career ahead of him, that would have seen him rise to the top of the tree. So why is he captaining Steeple Sinderby Wanderers and teaching in a village school?
Because six years ago, Diana, his lovely, bright, intelligent wife, was thrown from her bicycle in a hit-and-run accident, and suffered extensive brain damage. Alex Slingsby so loved his wife that he gave up his career to care for her, moving her nearer to her family, taking a job in the school across the street, offering Gidner rent free accommodation for looking in on her, and acting as if she is present in any conversation. Alex Slingsby gave up his life, both lives, without doubt or regret.
But he is now 27, physically at his peak, deprived of Purpose. And the Doctor recognises in Slingsby the need to do something. Kossuth’s Postulates fulfil that need very nicely.
And the third is Mr Fangfoss, Arthur by name, or even Artie, though only his (legal) wife calls him that. Fangfoss is the local rich man, principal farmer and chairman of everything. A Yorkshireman by birth, he is the Napoleon figure, who takes decisions instantly, is unafraid and unaffected, unconcerned as to consequence. He does not debate or decide, because he ‘was born with (his) mind made up’, and he is the one who makes everything happen.
Fangfoss is a throwback, a staunch conservative. I can’t help but see him as Carr’s mischievous insertion of himself into the book, and I’m not entirely sure of the extent to which Carr exaggerates to fit, or even if he exaggerates at all. But Fangfoss is the man without whom the resources could not put Kossuth’s Postulates or Slingsby’s Will into effect.
I mentioned, or Carr mentioned, that he had to bring together a possible fourth genius to make Steeple Sinderby believable top any degree, and the last of these is another ex-professional footballer, like Slingsby. This is Sid Swift, the Shooting Star, who once scored 52 goals in a First Division season and then flamed out: Swift woke up one day despairing of his Purpose in life, unable to extend it to the trivial role of kicking balls into bags.
The Shooting Star is brought into Steeple Sinderby’s team to bang in the goals prolifically. he arrives via the eccentric and fundamentalist ministry of Biddy Montagu, pulchritudinous sister of the Vicar (and right winger) Giles Montagu. But Sid Swift is really only seen at a distance. Apart from his scoring skills, he plays little part in the story.
Carr does play fast and loose with the structure of the Cup. In 1975, a club starting from Steeple Sinderby’s level would have had to go through twelve rounds to reach Wembley, but in the book, Carr only describes, in his oblique manner, six rounds. In the beginning, the club plays other fictional teams, up to and including Tampling United, a very patronising club in the First Round Proper, but from there they jump straight to the Fourth Round, and Leeds United at home (an opportunity for Carr to shower hooliganism with Toryness, which is extended to the Fifth Round visit of Manchester – not further defined – which even then I resented!).
As foreshadowed in Gidner’s introduction, Steeple Sinderby’s Final opponents are Glasgow Rangers (cue an ‘extract’ from Hansard in which an English MP excoriates Scotland in a manner that suggests that Carr rates the Scots as slightly below ‘layabouts’). The report on this game comes the closest to real-time commentary as the Final is won with a late goal, created and finished by Alex Slingsby, in between times Sid Swift hitting the bar.
That the book incorporates such a Roy of the Rovers cliché is entirely forgivable. It’s what the story demands and it is preceded by the book’s single most poignant moment, as Diana Slingsby dies in her husband’s arms and her prettiness is restored, allowing Gidner to see for himself the other side of Slingsby’s love and the full extent, even at this long remove, of his loss. No-one begrudges Slingsby’s individual moment of success.
I won’t say more as there is little more to say without telling more of the actual story than is advisable. I can’t recommend this book highly enough, and if you decide to act upon that advice, you deserve a clear run at the book.
All I will say is that, in keeping with Carr’s standard approach, Giles Montagu, and his unexpected bride to be announce their intention to study at Foxberrow College, in Sinji, under the Principal Mr Harpole, and we have already noted reference to the town of Tampling, which no doubt has schools…
But this is an overlooked and unsung classic which will strike a chord with any football fan, irrespective of allegiance. Even of teams based in Manchester…