How Steeple Sinderby Wanderers Won the FA Cup by J. L. Carr

The British writer and publisher J. L. Carr is undoubtedly best known for his masterpiece, A Month in the Country (1980), a book I truly adore. Nevertheless, this author is much more than a one-book wonder as his excellent 1975 novella, How Steeple Sinderby Wanderers Won the FA Cup, clearly demonstrates.

I loved this tale of the plucky underdogs – titular non-leaguers Steeple Sinderby Wanderers – overcoming all the odds to beat the mighty Glasgow Rangers, scooping the much-prized FA Cup in the process. Although very different in style to Carr’s most famous work, How Steeple Sinderby… shares something of that novella’s tone, an air of wistfulness and longing for halcyon times past.

In short, the book charts the progress of a village football team who, through a combination of talent, discipline and determination, achieve their dream of going all the way to cup final and snatching victory in the game’s closing minutes.

And then the truly magnificent Slingsby, who had withstood this assault like a rock, gathered the ball and, on the turn, squeezed a fierce low kick from the scrum. And one wondered… one wondered if this had been plotted months ago when this village side was still lost in the obscurity of the midland plains. It had been All or Nothing. Nothing if McGarrity had scored, Nothing if Wilmslow hadn’t risen from the earth… If, if, if… (p.111)

Crucial to the team are its key players: centre forward Sid Smith, a once-promising striker now lured out of retirement; Monkey Tonks, the local milkman whose strength and agility make him an ideal candidate for goalkeeper; and last but not least, Alan Slingsby, whose earlier career at Aston Villa was cut short due to his wife’s need for round-the-clock care.

The story is narrated by a local man, Joe Gidner, who is tasked with documenting the official history of the Wanderers’ triumph. As such, the novella comprises Gidner’s reflections on the season, intercut with extracts from newspaper reports on crucial matches, along with the occasional summary of committee meetings at the Club. Several of the press reports are penned by Alice (Ginchy) Trigger, a staff reporter from the East Barset Weekly Messenger. Ginchy – whose remit covers funerals, inquests, weddings and all sport – is one of a cast of idiosyncratic characters who give Carr’s novella its wonderful sense of place, rooted as it is in a somewhat eccentric rural community, quintessentially English in tone. At one point, Ginchy is asked to provide a running audio commentary on one of the games, for broadcast to an orchard full of restless Hartlepool fans who were unable to gain entry to the ground. It’s gloriously eccentric, full of partisan enthusiasm for the plucky home side.  

They’re all around Monkey Tonks and he’s trying to push them away as he can’t see. And everybody’s running into one another and the ball’s knocked two of theirs down. HE’S RUNNING! BILLY SLEDMER’s RUNNING! There’s nobody in front of him but their goalie and he’s coming out crouching. HE’S SCORED! We’ve got THREE. THEY CAN’T WIN US NOW! (pp. 69–70)

Mr Fangfoss, the formidable Club Chairman, is also worthy of a mention here, a confident, outspoken man who sees off all-comers – the meddling Club President included – with the most marvellous of put-downs.   

The Club’s tactical guru, the Hungarian Dr Kossuth, is another highly memorable character. Here he is with his beautiful, breathtaking wife, arriving at the ground for a pre-tournament match.

On this particularly fine April day she was wearing her expensive leopard skin coat with a little fur hat perched on her heaped-up hair and long leather boots. And the Doctor was wearing a long black Central European overcoat with the astrakhan collar which marked him as having seen better days. Naturally, I refused to take their 5p admission. (pp. 11–12)

En route to the final, the Wanderers must face all manner of opposition, from the confident Barchester City – the first of the Big Boys in the qualifying rounds – to the much-fancied team from Manchester, complete with a coterie of fans who run riot through the village.

There is a wonderful comic tone running through this novella, from the descriptions of the Wanderers’ preparations to the observations on their various opponents. I love this passage on Barchester, a town much despised by its neighbours for the smugness of its residents. 

Barchester has a cathedral and, until they built the Discount Hyper-Market, this was its biggest attraction. On fine Saturdays the City draws about 250 paying spectators, augmented by between 20 and 30 Pensioners who are driven out for air from the Cathedral Almshouses by the Warden Canon. But, in cold, wet weather, they get no more than 70 or 80 – including the full tally of Pensioners – all huddled in their ‘grandstand’, which is very interesting architecturally because it tones in with the Cathedral and is the only football building mentioned in the Professor Pevsner’s ‘Buildings of England’. (p. 43)

The spirit of village league football is also beautifully conveyed – an endeavour where belief and enthusiasm are all important, irrespective of the ramshackle nature of the set-up.

What strikes me about this marvellous novella is some of the aspects it shares with A Month in the Country despite the apparent difference in focus. As in Country, the fleeting nature of happiness is a key theme here, a sense that what has passed can never be recaptured, however much we wish it could be. Probably the best we can do is to cherish the memories, keeping them alive in our hearts and minds.

The book also has some interesting things to say about the nature of life in a rural community, almost as if there is something broader going on here alongside the touching tale of wish fulfilment.

People don’t know about rural England between the last Mystery Autumn Foliage Coach Trip and the Mystery Blossom Journey into Spring. Mud, fog, dripping trees, blackness, floods, mighty rushing winds under doors that don’t fit, damp hassocks, sticking organ keys, stone floors and that dreadful smell of decay. (p. 11)

For a novella first published in 1975, it also feels somewhat ahead of its time in terms of insights into the modern game – perhaps most notably, the importance of sports psychology and European-style methods of football management. Moreover, Carr is also aware of the negative impact of commercialisation within the game, particularly when the Club comes under pressure to convert to a limited company with sponsorship deals being touted as incentives.

So, in summary, How Steeple Sinderby… is very highly recommended indeed, even if you have absolutely no interest in football. Trust me, the writing is more than good enough to transcend any concerns on that front.

How Steeple Sinderby… is published by Penguin; personal copy.

37 thoughts on “How Steeple Sinderby Wanderers Won the FA Cup by J. L. Carr

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, I think it’s very much in keeping with the one of the underlying themes of the book – a slight sense of dismay at the ongoing commercialisation of Britain to the detriment of traditional life in the community. It’s beautifully done.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Marvellous! I really don’t think you need to be interested in football to enjoy this book. It’s much more about the idiosyncrasies of human nature and a sense of community spirit than the tactics of the actual game. Plus, it’s an absolute hoot. Trust me, I very much doubt you’ll be disappointed!

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      It’s definitely one to consider. Carr was such an excellent writer, and his insights into human nature really carry this through.

      Reply
  1. heavenali

    I have had A Month in the Country tbr for ages, I must try and dig it out. This one sounds wonderful too, I very much like the idea of that wistful looking back to more halcyon days, I think we all can sympathise with that at the moment. I can see this is a very English novel and that also appeals.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Absolutely. That sense of nostalgia or yearning for times past really resonates in the current crisis – a longing to return to what we had before. And you’re right, it’s quintessentially English – it’s hard to imagine it being set anywhere else. I think you’ll love A Month in the Country whenever you get around to it – another very English novella that seems ideal for lockdown reading.

      Reply
  2. Brian Joseph

    The underdog taking on champion athletes is an old theme. With that, it can work very well in the hands of the right writer. Very engaging stories can come out of this genre. This one sounds like it might also be a bit thoughtful.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, it’s the sort of wish-fulfilment narrative that works very well, particularly in films. That said, you’re right to pick up on the idea that there’s more to this book than the David-vs-Goliath aspect. I think it has a lot to say about the tension between progress and tradition, both positive and negative. On the plus side, there’s the impact of sports psychology and modern methods of management on the team’s performance; while on the downside there’s a risk that commercialisation will pose a threat – to both the club and the community. I think that adds another layer to the story, putting it into the broader context of part of our social history.

      Reply
  3. Claire 'Word by Word'

    Football literature, it sounds like an oxymoron, but if it’s written by J.L.Carr I can imagine it is a delight and quite possible should be required reading for anyone coming to live in England and wishing to understand the national obsession.

    Coming from a country obsessed with rugby and cricket, I understand culturally how a sport becomes part of a nation’s psyche, but football was always a bit of an enigma. I do remember the first time I went to a very quaint English pub and there was a game on and feeling the palpable energy and thinking, oh I think I get it now.

    It’s like Formula One which I’m not interested in either, but in the company of those who are obsessed and being around the excitement they generate in watching, that I find thrilling on occasion.

    Perhaps in our pursuit of blogging, we have all made reading a kind of sport! ;)

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I think you’re right about football being part of the nation’s pysche over here, certainly amongst specific social classes. My father — working-class through and through — loved football to the extent that he would take me along to Southampton’s home games once I was old enough to go along. So, it’s been part of my life from a young age; and even though I’m not a big fan myself these days, I still keep an eye on the Premier league and the team’s progress. Rugby just wasn’t part our family’s culture, possibly because it was seen as something for the middle classes but not for us. And you’re right, there’s is something thrilling about the sensation of watching a match or race with a crowd of passionate supporters. It’s eminently possible to get swept up in the collective energy, even if you’re not particularly keen on the sport!

      Reply
  4. kaggsysbookishramblings

    Wonderful post Jacqui! I absolutely loved this book too and I totally agree about the undercurrents of nostalgia and melancholy. It’s such a joy to read, and I love Carr’s writing so much. You wouldn’t think a book about football could be so enjoyable but he has much to say about the human condition and the changes taking place in our world. I have another of his lurking and now I want to go and dig it out and read it straight away!!!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I know! I do quite like football, particularly the big international competitions, but I’m not what you might call a fervent fan by any stretch of the imagination. It’s of passing interest to me but no more. The fact that the book has so much to say about us as a nation — both collectively and individually – lifts it above the level of a mere Boys’ Own adventure story. I suspect that’s testament to Carr’s skill as a writer, the sense of it being something bigger and broader than a tale of plucky underdogs. I’d love to read more by Carr, probably The Harpole Report if I can get hold of it.

      Reply
  5. Caroline

    I love A Month in the Country but hadn’t heard of this. I’m not too keen on the football theme but if he captures, as you write, the fleeting nature of happiness, it must be very good too. I started watching An English Game on Netflix, in spite of the football and truly like it.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Despite the obvious differences between this and A Month in the Country, the more I read the more similarities I could see between the two. At heart, they’re clearly the work of the same writer, one with an interest in Englishness, nostalgia and the ephemeral nature of time. I think you’d find it interesting in a technical sense if nothing else!

      Reply
  6. 1streading

    Not to criticize A Month in the Country, but I found it a little disappointing, perhaps simply because so many people had built it up to be something amazing. However, I’m very interested in reading this as I often feel there is shameful lack of literature about football in the UK given how important the game is.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      That’s interesting about A Month in the Country. Maybe it’s because so much of the power of that novella stems from the mood Carr creates. There’s something intangible about it, ephemeral almost, that’s hard to put into words. Anyway, I think you should read this. I loved that non-fiction book you write about a year or so ago, Football in Sun and Shadow, so maybe I can return the favour by recommending this!

      Reply
  7. Julé Cunningham

    ‘Discount Hyper-Market’ – oh dear, whatever would Trollope make of it all. I do love JL Carr’s writing and his perception of human nature, and this sounds wonderful, particularly some of the characters.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Ha! Yes, that kind of development was probably the source of great excitement back in the ’70s. I suspect Trollope would be intrigued by the foibles of human nature on display here, particularly as everything is so wonderfully well-observed.

      Reply
  8. Tredynas Days

    I suppose the title indicates Carr wasn’t concerned about ‘will the plucky David defeat giant Goliath’ teaser. This sounds like something written pre-WWI – has a similar nostalgic aspect perhaps as A Month…

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes. No need for a spoiler alert here – the giveaway is in the title! Oddly enough, it’s actually quite refreshing to know this upfront as it takes away any sense of tension, freeing the reader to enjoy the novella for what it really is – an examination of the idiosyncrasies of English rural life. And yes, the nostalgic feel is very much in evidence here, a sense of longing for halcyon times. It’s very nicely done.

      Reply
  9. Jane

    I love the sound of this, always up for the underdog and the damp hassocks quote gives a certain coyness, definitely one for my tbr, thanks!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      A pleasure! It’s a comic gem, ideal reading for the current times. I could definitely see it working well as a film, too – it would make the basis for a wonderful adaption, albeit in the right hands. :)

      Reply
  10. Nat

    I’m very intrigued by this! But is there any explanation for why Glasgow Rangers would be playing in the English FA Cup? Is there something significant to the England vs. Scotland opposition being established there?

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Well spotted! It’s an odd one as it doesn’t actually add anything significant to the story, other than a mention of the competition being particularly tough that year due to the inclusion of Scottish teams for the first time. In reality, Scottish teams don’t participate in the FA Cup as they have their own contest for the Scottish Cup instead; so you’re quite right to point it out as a fictional quirk of the book!

      Reply
  11. Guy Savage

    I’ve wondered about this one as I like the author, but I’m one of those with NO interest in football. Sometimes these by-settings overwhelm the plot so I’m glad to hear it didn’t this time.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I really don’t think it does here, primarily because the real essence of the story is about Englishness, human nature and the triumphs of the giant-killers. The tournament provides a great framework for Carr to use in the construction of his story, but there’s not a huge amount of technical detail to get bogged down in. I’d recommend it, especially as you like him as a writer.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      A pleasure! For all the differences in tone and themes, it’s recognisably the work of the same writer. The sense of nostalgia/longing for times past clinches it, I think.

      Reply
  12. The Reading Bug

    I first read this so many years ago, and still have a treasured copy somewhere. Completely agree re A Month in the Country – a masterpiece, not properly appreciated I think. Should be on school syllabuses everywhere.I think having Glasgow in the FA Cup was a joke rather than a mistake.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I would love to see A Month in the Country on the curriculum. It’s such a beautiful, subtle book, and its message about the destructive effects of war is nicely judged. I think you’re right about the Scottish teams in the FA Cup being a joke. That’s kind of what I was getting at with my comment about it being a fictional quirk – Carr taking artistic licence with the truth!

      Reply
  13. Pingback: A-Z Index of Book Reviews (listed by author) | JacquiWine's Journal

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