Book Review: Staying Up

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A book that some Coventry fans may be familiar with is Rick Gekoski’s 1998 account of life behind the scenes at Coventry City Football Club during the 1997/98 season. The writer, Gekoski, inquires as to what life is like inside football, players, managers, chairmen, partially inspired by his feeling of inadequacy surrounding the club’s signing of Gary McAllister in 1996. The major theme of the book becomes how the world of football can be insular and how outsiders are treated when they encroach upon the sport’s inner sanctum. Of particular interest for Coventry fans today though is the information provided on ex-chairman Bryan Richardson’s financial outlook during the 90s, arguably resulting in the club’s present day woes.

The writer’s monologue is reminiscent of other books focusing on a writer’s journey with a football club, chiefly Joe McGinniss’s The Miracle of Castel di Sangro and Tim Parks’s A Season With Verona. The effect that Gekoski’s narrative voice has on the reader is that it conveys a sense of the writer’s single, lonely experience even within the group dynamic of a football club. We learn of Gekoski’s own relationship with Coventry City Football Club with various flashbacks, conversations with fellow fans and his matchday experiences but football fans will feel treated by the snippets of information regarding the players as well as Bryan Richardson and ex-manager Gordon Strachan.

One of the quotes attached to the book itself is from Gordon Strachan and conveys our ex-manager’s frank and dry sense of humour apparant from his media image. “If I had known that you were going to write this sort of book, I would never have allowed [it] …Having said that, I think it’s one of the best books about football ever written.’ In the book itself we see a side of Strachan that connects his media image with the man ranting and raving on the touchline. The season itself was a rarely comfortable one for the club in its Premiership years however the long early winter winless run clearly took its toll on Strachan. His cold and tetchy managment of Gekoski within the club convey the sense of a man attempting to balance his insecurities with the need to maintain the appearance of control and self-belief required of a top-flight manager.

At one point in the novel Strachan reveals himself to be a fan of Woody Allen, justifying it by saying that they are both insecure about their height. In the early stages of the book Strachan continually makes and misses appointments to talk to Gekoski, yet continually asserts his belief that Gekoski is the one who is missing the appointments. In this, as we are told by the writer, is this requirement in professional sport to maintain self belief and confidence despite evidence to the contrary. Perhaps this is why managers under pressure assert that it is referees rather than they who are responsible for bad results. The first half of the season also sees Strachan try to maintain control by deferring his responsibility for poor results upon referees.

The missed appointments with Gekoski also reveal the hostile nature of football towards outsiders. The writer finds himself at pains to demonstrate to the players that he isn’t a journalists but clearly struggles to get through to the several players beyond the typical platitudes given out in formal media interviews. It isn’t till the end of the season that Gekoski gets to talk to Dion Dublin directly and several other players are only conveyed through the writer’s interpretation of their body language. The two players who stand out then are Steve Ogrizovic and John Salako who both seem outsiders to different extents. Ogrizovic comes across as a warm person who as an ex-policeman feels slightly outside of the bubble of professional football. Salako appears to be the squad’s outcast, clearly suffering a crisis of confidence throughout the book, after playing particularly poorly in one match he says to Gekoski that he’s going to go home to kill himself (which he doesn’t do in case you were wondering).

For Coventry fans of today of note will be the revelations regarding Richardson’s vision for Coventry City. Talking of a new 45,000 seater stadium and of the need to keep pace in terms of spending with the rest of the league it seems apparant that Richardson based his financial plan for the club on continued Premiership survival. He also reveals how the club was attempting to modernise from the early 90s onwards, starting from being unable to pay a cheque for £20 to fix a broken fence and planning towards a future market flotation.

Looking back on it today it all seems like a miscalculated gamble or building a house on foundations of sand. Back in the mid-90s though Coventry were the team with the 4th longest stay in the top flight and the board had the belief that the team would be able to improve on being mere relegation battlers to a side capable of challenging regularly for Europe. Its tempting to wonder how it would have gone had we been able to keep our heads above water long enough to move to into Richardson’s grand stadium. The level of ambition though doesn’t seem in keeping with the identity of this club or even the city, with the club having to spend so much to just survive in the league then you wonder how much would actually have changed had we remained in the Premiership for at least a few years longer.

Back on point to the book though, Richardson comes across as a very affable and likeable man as well as having clear confidence in Gordon Strachan as well as the team. For many people nowadays Richardson is viewed as some Faustian figure who sold the soul of the club to the devil, or even something much worse. However the image of Richardson in the book makes him appear the ideal football chairman. Even in an intial meeting he reveals that the club are after Regis Genaux and later reveals how the club were attempting to sign players such as John Collins, Boudewijn Zenden and David Trezeguet. In contrast with the faceless SISU, Richardson was open, available and honest about his ambitions for the club.

This is a book that I would recommend for any football fan, it’s a rare insight into the inner sanctum of football during the pressures of a league campaign. For Coventry fans it provides valuable information as to how the club ended up in its current state as well as a look back into a rosier time for the club during a successful season.

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