Book Review: Only A Game by Eamon Dunphy

We dive into what is a fantastic book, which chronicles the stories of a footballer who didn’t quite make it to the top.

On the surface, Jason Kennedy and Romelu Lukaku don’t have much in common beyond both featuring in the recent transfer window. One is a midfielder playing at Carlisle, a League Two team who play their football two hours away from the ground Lukaku, a striker, calls home now. But they both have much to prove, and much to achieve. For Kennedy, it is making sure that Carlisle cross the bridge to League One, which narrowly collapsed last season. For Lukaku,the ambition is to win all competitions – domestic and continental. Jason has never played for his country at any level while Romelu is about to lead his to the World Cup next year. Most people in Kennedy’s region don’t even know his name – while Lukaku a foreign import is a growing international star. But both are important to their clubs, and while goals may be different, success is an equalizer at every level. Whether it comes at 300k or 1k a week on their contract sheet.

For every Lukaku in the Premier League, there are hundreds plying their trade in the below leagues still searching for a chance to properly get into the game. While they are no longer scavenging for a nominal payday, they are still dreamers, rejects and the epitome of ‘career men’ who shift from club to club with barely a whisper found. This is their story – the stories of the Jason Kennedys of the football world.

What drives these men and the managers in these places to strive for success? What is their measure of success? So often by just observing and recording these captivating title runs and cup victories, that the rest fall by the wayside. As Napoleon once said, what is history but a fable agreed upon?

Eamon Dunphy, our eye into this world, is neither unbiased nor omniscient. He frequently gets into hyperbole and repetitive talk, sometimes conflicting with fellow residents of the game strongly. But those poignant reflections that will one day make him one of the foremost investigative writers of his time are all there – hidden under a melodramatic bluster.

Though that confidence isn’t unfounded, especially at the start of the season and the book. This is a self-assured veteran of a club fighting to reach the premier division of the English league, having narrowly missed out just a few seasons ago with the Class of ‘71. A man who left Manchester United after finding no place in the first team only to stay at Millwall for nearly a decade.

What’s refreshing is the complete honesty with which he presents his perspective of the disastrous months that followed. He may not be right always, but he isn’t lying either. Starting from pre-season to the start of the season and the changes in the team, you find yourself immersed in his opinion.

There is a wonderful preface from a fellow football literature luminary Brian Glanville where he balances Dunphy’s professional integrity with the nightmarish tale that he finds himself in. It harks back to a simpler time when nutmegs weren’t the oomph factor, but the day-in day-out grind in front of fans was the reward in itself. Of course, a few quid helped keep the house warm, but Dunphy is quite clear on being a footballer first and a professional later.

A winter’s day; a football match in an open field, with cricket screen, trees and buildings behind. A line of soldiers, some wearing grey coats, watches from the near touchline. A few are seated on benches. (Imperial War Museum)

The book is written in diary format, and any reflective musings are kept at the end. This helps the reader follow Dunphy on a proper path as he battles the highs and lows that come on the road. Creating the elusive comfort of being a passenger in a chauffeured car, he brings in rich detail on how footballers go about their business.

It all starts with the pre-season, as the Millwall lads return to the Sidcup Bypass in late July to start prepping for the football season ahead. It involves new training drills, a shuffling in the ranks, some quarrels and new bonds. While Eamon dedicates the entire book to exploring most of his team mates, two stand out more than others – Gordon Hill and Dennis Burnett, who exist on opposite ends of the spectrum. The new recruit settling in and the long standing veteran going out.

The season starts off humorously as we see how the new joinees including Hill are put through the hoops. It evolves to him taking part in the first team, and after some initial hiccups, becoming a regular as he heralds a new era for Millwall. Dennis is a more intriguing specimen. Unlike Gordon, his presence seems to be more fleeting in nature. We arrive a little late to the story to understand Burnett’s importance to the term, but trust Eamon in his foreboding speak that he was made captain for a reason despite his open discontent with the manager Benny Fenton – and without him, the team is lesser on the field.

Benny is probably the one non-team mate given the most attention. Having been at the club for around 8 years, Eamon constantly oscillates between respect and disgust for the ‘man’, questioning his strategies and passive nature to any trouble in the dressing room. It’s an interesting glimpse at the relationship between players and managers, albeit one-sided. Doubly so given the writer recognizes that he is reaching the tail end of his own career and has more in common with leadership than just on-field performance now. During one pre-season training drill, he reflects on the fact that the older a player gets, the more he starts thinking about the overall scheme of the club and all the variables that go into making it into a well-oiled machine that is seen by the outside world.

Others like the dominant forward Gordon Bolland, Bryan ‘Kingsy’ King the goalkeeper, and best bud ‘Alf’ Wood have their own arcs during the brief time Eamon associates with them over the current season. Relationships are given a very big focus in the book, not only in a personal space but also on the field as this is the culmination of almost a decade at the club for most of them.

There are some excellent glimpses of the activist in Eamon and his cohorts, as we see them picking up the agenda of full time referees with proper wages. A good footballer needs to be well-paid, and that extended to everyone in the game in the author’s opinion. Besides that, he offers some insightful analysis of different teams – including the emergence of the showboat players who are perfect for the top division climate but can come unstuck amid the hardness of lower league systems.

The story begins with reasonable optimism. Eamon comments that barring some friction like the Dennis/Benny divide, the squad is ready to challenge for promotion with a nice blend of experience and youth. There are grumblings of not getting more exotic overseas pre-season tours like other teams and less than effective training routines, but those disquieting elements quickly give way to pranks on Hill involving his stardom ambitions and tennis skills, and some excellent practice matches against division teams. Eamon, 28 years of age in August 1973, goes to sleep before the first match of the season confident that their troubles are behind them and they can conquer whatever lies in front.

Sadly for him and the team, that never materializes. The season kicks off with a loss to Fulham and in the aftermath, we realize how much a thinking man’s footballer Eamon has become. While it does have the air of self-aggrandizement, Eamon dissects the problems in the manager’s strategy and the human error in executing those types of strategies. To his credit, he seldom does it in a bland manner – giving hints to his future career as a game analyst and writer.

But despite the wonderful reviews he provides, there’s not much cheer for him on the pitch. The next few matches all end in defeat save one home draw, and instead of promotion dreams, the team begins harbouring fears of a relegation battle – and Kingsy goes from being on the top division clubs’ keeper watchlist to repeated mediocrity. We see the team going through the motions, and what happens to most mid level team -depending on opposition, reacting differently to the results dished out. A Preston defeat is good enough, but a loss against Blackpool is disastrous.

That leads to self-taught lies as the author learns when on a talk show, he defends a heavy defeat by mentioning that their regular goalie wasn’t there, only to learn later that it was far from the truth. Eamon stresses on the self-deception as a necessity to keep up squad morale, even though he does privately admit to the flaws in the team. Dirty laundry is for the dressing room, not for the stadium.

The vagaries of football show their ugly head as after a strong turnaround of great run of games putting them within reach of the top five, a home game against a lowly Carlisle turns into a historical first home defeat to them, triggering the final turning point as Eamon gets dropped for the next game.

From being a harbinger of glory, Eamon finds himself and his fellow mates, except for Alf, slowly ostracized from the starting line up as results go haywire. Instead of this becoming their year, it descends into a crucible for a rebirth for the club with younger and newer players forming the nucleus of the team.

One of the biggest naked truths occur when Eamon is on the bench – and shows a mentality that seems taboo but when put in the shoes of a dropped player (and importantly, not just a regular substitute), it’s quite understandable though still disturbing. As Notts County leads Millwall double to nothing at the break, the writer can barely suppress his glee at the imminent defeat for his own side even as the manager tries to rally the troops. And when his team manages to hit back and draw, he mentions feeling sick. It’s not politically correct, but it’s honest – and in a microcosm, that showcases what this book is about. But beyond that, there’s little for Millwall to be happy about as they continue their losing streak, with only one or two victories proving to be a brief passage of joy for them.

A tempest starts brewing and with the old guard being shifted, most of them leave the club. First up is Dennis Burnett himself, in what seems like an afterthought after his continuous insubordination and ‘injuries’, leaving for Hull City followed soon by Eamon himself leaving for Charlton. Soon, the entire canvas represents a Greek tragedy in the making as the collapse of a building empire takes hold. It’s a poignant reflection of how things can change drastically inside a few months. Football is never merciful.

By the time the diary comes to a close, you’re brutalized. This is no fairy tale, there is no ending! Despite the welcome additions in the appendix that follow, there is a perfection in the incomplete nature of the story. For isn’t that what life is? This is but a chapter in the tale of a journeyman footballer who for a brief while found a place of belonging. And just like the rest of us, the story continues. Even after the last page has been turned, and the book sent back to the shelves.

The appendix in itself is quite wonderful, albeit dry. For a statistics nut, getting all the match scores for Millwall that season is interesting, and later learning what was the final results of the season and the subsequent careers of both managers and players help bring a little closure that is otherwise non-existent in the main text. But again, it can be counter-effective as it reduces a bit of the charm of the uncertainty that the ending attempted to provide.

Only a Game's Eamon Dunphy at the Sinn Féin Summer School, 2013
Eamon Dunphy at the Sinn Féin Summer School, 2013

There is also an excellent double opinion piece as we are exposed to a journalist Peter Ball’s viewpoint of a match Millwall won by a whisker, and how it contrasts with Eamon’s description of it despite both being reasonably valid interpretations. It shows so brilliantly how on-field and off-field personnel can dissect events depending on their allegiance and involvement.

Overall, this book is perfect because it isn’t. If it sounds paradoxical, but bear with me here. Truth is often more brutal than fiction. You can feel Eamon’s earnest view on the opening of this diary as something he hopes to recount as a mesmerising fairy tale with him leading the charge. I count it as bravery for him to have charged forward and despite seeing that life had other plans for him and his mates, deciding that this was worth recounting to the public. And it truly is.

Only a game‘ is not the story of the hundreds who achieved glory in the football ecosystem. This is the story of the tens of thousands who toil and fall, and rise again to only fall. This is the story of the also-rans, those who have tried and tried hard – and that deserves recognition. The game is quite a beast, and each fighter deserves a moment in the spotlight, not just the ones who tame it.

Avishek Chatterjee

A Devil of reddish intent, waiting for a theatre to dream again while he writes and knows things.