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Gladys Protheroe - Football Genius
Simon Cheetham (Juma 1994, 5.95)
Football writing's still in the Dark Ages. The simple fact is that shared experiences and shared loyalties allow writers to get away with lazy, unimaginative prose - for journalists, the immediacy of deadlines make formulaic reporting a necessity; for authors, there's the temptation of getting sucked into the subject matter, creating a 'book about football' rather than a piece of work that stands up in its own right.

There are very few exceptions to the rule (and Nick Hornby's not one of them - no criticism of Fever Pitch is intended, it's a fine read but it's still primarily a book about football). I can only think of one - John King's The Football Factory. Occasional 'When Saturday Comes' contributor Matt Nation comes close, for entirely different reasons.

Gladys Protheroe is a brave attempt at breaking the mould. Perhaps inevitably, it's not a complete success - in the end, the author's prose lacks that certain sparkle necessary to bring his ideas to full fruition - but at least it's not your common or garden 'book about football'.

Watford fans ought to be familiar with Gladys by now. 'Her' bid to have her eightieth birthday announced over the PA system at every ground in the country has become tiresome for some but, to be honest, if it means I waste five minutes less of my life listening to the Lightning Seeds then I won't complain too much. The book tells her story, from Assistant Groundsman at Vicarage Road in 1922 to 86-year old assistant to Graham Taylor during his reign as England manager.

And, after a slow start, it builds up a head of steam to develop into a thoroughly enjoyable romp through football history. For much of the book, events are subtly twisted to fit Gladys into the picture - her involvement (along with top chef Keith Floyd) in the 1970 England World Cup campaign, including an arrest for theft and the accidental poisoning of Gordon Banks, is particularly gripping. There's a delicate charm to it all - if you want reference points, much of it reminded me of Steve Coogan's last series.

Some of the best bits have precious little to do with football. When Cheetham indulges his bizarre sense of humour to embark on wild flights of fancy with his characters, Gladys Protheroe transcends its subject matter and becomes a brilliantly surreal set of comic capers. The two chapters devoted to Gladys' tours with Elton John are just perfect, stupid fun - in the first, George Best is brought on board as a roadie in an attempt to get his life back on track; in the second, Gladys discovers singer-songwriter Bruce Springsteen and the story climbs to ever more ludicrous heights.

Best is last, though, as Cheetham finally gives himself full rein for a final chapter on Graham Taylor's period as England manager. It's riotous stuff, Taylor and Protheroe involved in continuous insult-trading and punch-ups with journalists in press conferences before leading their side into the USA '94 qualifying campaign. Taylor's selections become increasingly erratic, culminating in England debuts for his postman, Middlesex spinner Phil Tufnell and Big Ted from Playschool before the final showdown in Rotterdam. After the Koeman incident, Taylor disappears to the dressing rooms, returning in full commando regalia and madly spraying gunfire in the referee's direction - as with all the book's finest moments, it's an image that will mean I'll never again be able to see Taylor without thinking of what he'd look like with a mohawk and mirrored sunglasses...

I could go overboard in analysing the whole thing. I won't - this is best left as an inconsequential set of tall tales. I'd recommend that you just go along for the ride - it's kinda fun.

Ian Grant