Yet football is providing inspiration in literary circles - and in the classroom where it's boosted the performance of underachieving boys. Harvey McGavin consults the muse
It started with Shakespeare and King Lear. Kent called Oswald a "base football player" - and that was the first mention of the game in literature. The centuries that followed saw poets concerning themselves with more cerebral matters, but today the sport that Pele called "the beautiful game" and Cantona referred to as an art form, is inspiring a new generation of poets.
Established names like Seamus Heaney, Glyn Maxwell and Tony Harrison have all committed their feelings on the game to verse. Now newer talents are taking their poetry into schools in the hope that underachieving boys in particular can be inspired by their heroes on the pitch.
Ian Horn is one of them. A former civil servant who took voluntary redundancy in 1995 to concentrate on his writing, he now referees lively poetry workshops in schools. Horn has been a fan of his home team, Sunderland, (one of several clubs originally formed by a team of teachers, incidentally) since his father first took him to Roker Park as a boy. "When I lost my father, that was the springboard for the project. We were very close. All my feelings for him were wrapped up in the history of Sunderland."
He has put together an anthology of poetry about football, Verses United, and devised a classroom-based celebration of the form with his Fantasy Football Poetry League. Dressed in an old-fashioned kit, with rattle and whistle at the ready to keep order, he divides the class into teams and gives them half an hour to come up with a poem. "It can get very animated and the kids absolutely love it. They have said 'it's the best English lesson we have ever had and we want more like this'."
Horn finds football a good vehicle for introducing children to concepts like alliteration (Sheringham and Shearer), onomatopoeia (crunching tackles) and similes (legs like lead) to bring the game to life. "It really does strike a chord. Boys who are underachieving will actually start reading. It's very satisfying when you can go into a strange environment and have such an immediate impact."
Lynn Wright, of Kirkley High School, Lowestoft, found the workshop a tonic for her pupils. "The notion of using football as a way to encourage boys is something we should be exploring, but even the girls were quite able to engage in what was going on." One girl produced a prize-winning poem using the contest between two teams as a metaphor for marital disharmony.
At West Derby school, an all-boys comprehensive in Liverpool, English teacher Mike Tracy saw reluctant pupils come to life: "They realised they had something they could write about. This was the best workshop we had done, simply because it was a much more active way of doing poetry. There was so much feeling generated."
So where has this feeling for the finer things in football come from? John Williams, of the Football Research Centre at Leicester University, traces it back to the creation of the Premier League, the mass commercialisation of the sport, and a nostalgia for what went before. "Around the time of the Heysel and Hillsborough disasters it was hard in polite company to talk about football. Now it has almost gone full circle. Poetry has always been at the heart of the playing of football. I like to think that footballers are urban poets - it's as close as most working-class men get to anything that involves grace or finesse.
"In part, the poetry is probably about saying there's too much gloss, it's gone too far. There is a sense that poets are desperately trying to defend the traditions of the sport against the awful vulgarisation of television."
Signs that footballers are not, after all, the monosyllabic morons of popular myth emerged a few years ago when Eric Cantona told an interviewer he was an admirer of the 19th-century French poet Rimbaud (the interviewer thought he meant Rambo).
Then Tony Adams, the Arsenal and England defender, overcoming his battle with the bottle, started studying for a GCSE in English literature and became a fan of Thomas Hardy's poems. Reading, it suddenly seemed, wasn't just a First Division football club that played at Elm Park. Scottish poet Don Paterson's devotion to Dundee United prompted him to insist that his prize-winning collection, Nil Nil, was bound in orange, the team's colours. Paterson, who left school at 16, was recently awarded the TS Eliot prize.
Another poet, John Hegley, was a lapsed Luton Town fan when he was commissioned to produce a poem about the club. "I used to be crazy about Luton as a kid but I moved to Bristol and lost interest. Someone asked me to write about Luton and I thought 'I'm not going to be inspired by this'. But then Scott Oakes scored an amazing goal and I jumped up out of my seat."
Stephen Trousse, editor of the Poetry Review, puts the revival down to a shift in the class profile of poets. "It's a grass roots thing. Poets write about what people talk about, so these days they are more likely to write poems about football. In the past there was a poetry mafia that was public school and Oxbridge - educated and would have perhaps played more rugby and hockey at school. The poets coming to publishers' notice these days are more likely to have had a comprehensive education.'' One writer who has been mining the rich seam of footballing language is Ian McMillan, "poet laureate" of Barnsley Football Club. He has been working in schools since 1981, but nothing has attracted as much interest as his honorary position as chronicler of the South Yorkshire team's fortunes. It has generated huge media interest and a vast postbag. "People have just heard that I am the football poet and sent me stuff. I have been really surprised by the amount of poetry being written about football. Before, I used to go to football to get away from the poetry but then I realised they go together perfectly."
He writes a weekly poem for the Barnsley Chronicle, and says the sporting subject matter has opened up poetry to a whole new audience of people "who might not normally read that kind of thing. "I always thought poetry was the stuff of life," he says simply. "Now I know it is."
OFFSIDE ODES AND EULOGIES TO THE BEAUTIFUL GAME
From the top, then, the zenith, the silent footage:. McGrandle, majestic in ankle-length shorts,
his golden hair shorn to an open book, sprinting
the length of the park for the long hoick forward,
his balletic toe-poke nearly bursting the roof
of the net; a shaky pan to the Erskine St End
where a plague of grey bonnets falls out of the clouds.
* from 'Nil Nil' by Don Paterson
Each muggy Saturday you sat still while the set
Called out into the hushed room where I sat
With burning ears and heard a London voice
Call names as strange as shipping forecasts through the air:
Hamilton Academicals, Queen of the South,
Pontefract United, Hearts of Midlothian,
Wolverhampton Wanderers, Arbroath, Hibernian
And once, I thought, a boy called Patrick Thistle.
* from 'Daddy Edgar's Pools' by Mike Harding
Mining footballers, midfield grafters
like hewers in a goalmouth seam
new blades of grass
from the ashes
of a collier's dream
on the last cage to the turf
* from 'Home Ground' by Ian Horn
That moment of silence
before the roar
when all the bad news
like water down a drain on Grove Street
That moment of silence
before the song
when real life seemed like
beside a football at Neil Redfearn's feet
After the silence
the singing will come
after the silence
the dancing will come
after the silence
the tears will fall
after the silence
that covers all
from 'April 26th 1997, Barnsley 2, Bradford 0, final whistle', by Ian McMillan