Firstly, a qualifying statement. As I've confessed several times on these pages, the coincidence of a statistician and a football obsessive is a truly tragic thing - and I love books of this ilk. When I was about seven I had a Playfair (I think...) football handbook... Kevin Keegan was on the cover, complete with perm in the away version of the Admiral England top; each team had its own page (ordered alphabetically, AFC Bournemouth before Arsenal) with a splurge of text (that I never read) and a load of stats down the bottom. Critical here, at the foot of each page, were "Highest Transfer Fee Paid" (£175,000 to Leicester for Steve Sims) and "Highest Transfer Fee Received" (£110,000 from West Ham for Billy Jennings).
The point is, I speak as somebody who tends to be easily won over by pages of facts and figures about football, and needed little persuading to review this effort in return for a complimentary copy.
And there are certainly some plusses in favour of "Kick Off", one of a number of such annual guides on the market. Its size, for one thing... restricting itself to Division Two clubs might mean that you're at a bit of a loss when we draw Mansfield or some such away in the F.A.Cup, but it does mean that the A5 paperback is slim enough to fit into all but the most crammed glove compartments.
The layout is easy on the eye, tidy and organised; each club is afforded four pages, comprising three pages' worth of statsy things and one page of stuff about the ground and so forth. The latter is probably the most useful for the travelling fan, including approach- and locality-level maps of the area, some local information and computer-rendered 3D images of the stadium itself.
Here's the thing though (well, one of the things, I'll get on to the others...). Whilst the info present might be kinda useful on one level, it does fall a little short. The maps are clear enough, but why no directions? And from the "Travel information" bit, scanning through, there are a few nuggets that might be useful (for instance, park in Church car park for the Vic, it's not far) but why is Watford High Street listed as the nearest station without mentioning that it's probably not worth waiting for a train there from the Junction if you can face five minutes' walk? Scanning wider afield, the "Busses" bit of the Stoke section informs me that I can catch a bus from Glebe Street. Which is nice. No clues where Glebe Street is though. There's one off Horseshoe Lane in Woodside, I think... might wander down there on Saturday to catch a bus to the game...?
So... problem number one, the book tries to be a travel guide and a statistical guide without really affording space to do the former properly. Which is a bit of a shame really, because the statistical bit is, largely, a load of old bobbins.
Not all of this is the publishers' fault... any attempt to take a snapshot in time during the hurly-burly of the close season is never going to be relevant by the time printing has completed and the thing hits the market in any summer, let alone this one during which so many clubs in the division have undergone wholesale revamps. So it's unrealistic to be critical of the inclusion of Neil Cox and Heidar Helguson, for example, in the graphic representing the "Season Squad". However, the inclusion of Neal Ardley (who left in March), Paul Jones (February), Chris Eagles and so forth does suggest a certain laziness in its composition... I had briefly considered that the graphic was supposed to be a retro look at last season's team, but there's a bland bit of adjacent blurb about Adrian Boothroyd needing to guide his young players this season that gives the game away. Andy Townsend's vacant grin appears in the talkSPORT bit at the front of the book, incidentally... not a selling point, and the insights on each team are his kinda level.
As for the rest of the stats... well, they vary from the space filling (do we really need half a page charting league progress last season in several colours?) to the completely inane (we've drawn fifty seven games over the last five seasons. Even I don't care...). Occasionally there's something briefly interesting but clumsily presented: we hit the woodwork twenty times last season, apparently... it would be nice to have a context to set this in without having to flick through every second double page in the book (only Leicester, of the teams still in the division, hit the woodwork more I have discovered). All of this assuming that you even trust the figures of course which, given the accuracy of the squad info, I'm not sure that I do.
Again, I'm wondering what the book is actually for... all the statsy stuff is available on the web now for this season, not the previous campaign which is already disappearing into historical semi-relevance in the mind's eye. If there's a market for this book, it's for helping to quench the thirst for football before the start of the season, at which point I might have been persuaded to part with seven quid for it (later to be regretted). And yet the thing is just coming out now, in early September; I would guess that it's missed the boat. Dinghy.
This review's death knell was sounded when I turned to the Watford pages and found two of them still joined together at the base, my clumsy attempts at separation rendering the thing a dog-eared look before its time. If much thought had gone into anything else you'd credit that this was the intention.
The back cover of the book is another, small, plus... a "Phones 4U" advert featuring the first use of the word "Orn" that I've ever seen in an advert ("Tiger or 'Orn, Ram or Canary, we've got..." etc). It's likely that I'll be seeing more of this than I will of the inside of the book in future. The Wolves pages, incidentally, will remain joined together.