To the wire

Pray: Notes on the 2011/2012 Football Season, by Nick Hornby, Penguin Specials e-book £1.99

Full disclosure: I was one of those for whom the final minutes of the last English football season provoked a range of embarrassing, not to say demented, reactions. If you are a fan of the sport, you will remember most of the details. If not, it will mean nothing to you. My team, Queens Park Rangers, one of the weakest teams in the Premier League and threatened with relegation, were on the brink of beating Manchester City, the strongest team – or at least the richest – to save themselves and deny City the league title.

The game had been almost too rich in drama. The QPR captain was sent off for committing a concisely grouped variety of assaults, both realised and attempted, on several of the City players. There was a last-minute equaliser from City and then – calamity! – a last-minute winner. Minutes are stretched thin in football-time, often to unbearable effect. In the end QPR lost, but were safe because of events elsewhere, and there was a huge party in City’s finely appointed Etihad stadium.

The condensing of several sub-plots into those final two minutes of the football season – City’s triumph was achieved at the expense of their Manchester rivals United – beggared belief. Football is the most heavily hyped product of modern times, and so accustomed are we to its exaggerated claims that it comes as a surprise when it actually delivers.

But it was an apposite climax to an extraordinary season, chronicled with characteristic wit and empathy by Nick Hornby in this pithy ebook. Hornby, author of Fever Pitch (1992), is a football romantic who manages to ride the waves of cynicism over the game without losing his poise. He knows, as we all do, that football can be the shoddiest of products, but also the most sublime provider of improbable narrative twists.

The 2011-12 season will be remembered for its Looney Tunes climax, but also for a host of incendiary sub-plots: racism rows involving Luis Suárez and John Terry (the latter case still trudging through the law courts); the heart attack and subsequent recovery of Bolton’s Fabrice Muamba; the apparent suicide of the Wales manager Gary Speed. A personal highlight for Hornby was the return on loan of Thierry Henry to his beloved Arsenal line-up. Henry scored, of course, but it was short and sharp relief, “like a one-night stand with an ex”.

Hornby is reasonably dispassionate on the grotesque amounts of money that the game now attracts. Manchester City, he tells us, have bought 36 players since 2008 at a reported cost of £486m. But that degree of domination only gives added frisson to the on-field surprises,

The most foolish people in football, says Hornby, are those deluded enough to believe that its results can be predicted with any certainty. I think of QPR’s undistinguished and niggardly back four, coming within seconds of creating corporate havoc, embodying the spirit of a game that will not be denied.

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