Before I start, I must admit that I am slightly biased when it comes to reviewing Mark Davies’ A Love Letter to Football. My dad, like the author, is a big Middlesbrough fan and therefore I too have always had a soft spot for the Teesside club. In fact, Davies and my dad were actually good friends growing up and are still in touch today. Small world up north, I guess.
However, despite being aware of that bias when I started reading the book, it didn’t take long to realise that it is a quite excellent piece of writing. A Love Letter to Football is a bittersweet story. Davies was diagnosed with myeloma, a rare form of blood cancer, in 2016. Understandably devastating news, it prompted something of a change in perspective for Davies. He talks in particular of a deep gratitude for what he has – including his lifelong love affair with Middlesbrough Football Club.
Having been a supporter since 1973 (Malcolm Smith netting the winner in his first game), Davies certainly has some stories. From the highs of reaching the UEFA Cup Final in 2006 to the lows of financial crisis and near oblivion in the 1980s, there are a series of moments that will always stick in the mind of any Boro supporter. Davies talks through them in an emotive fashion, describing how he experienced rather than just witnessed the events. It’s so well written that you as the reader delight in his moments of joy and suffer with him through the pain. There is a sense of humour throughout the book too, the pessimism and footballing gallows humour of ‘typical Boro’ reflecting the typical thoughts of many a football fan across the country, I’m sure.
As a football fan, I was drawn in by the Middlesbrough connection, which is excellently done in A Love Letter to Football, but some of the best parts of the book are those that deviate from activities at Ayresome Park and the Riverside. In chapter 7, Davies talks about his family background and slightly unusual mixed heritage. The football fan in him comes from his mum’s side of the family, who were pretty much all from Teesside. His dad’s side of the family, however, were more upper class, and Davies’ father was never remotely interested in football. Instead, he had his own obsession with steam railways. Whilst many might think these two passions are wildly different, Davies recognises the similarities in them. Both father and son were able to find routine and an escape in their passions, providing them with a means to help them cope with whatever life could throw at them. It's a clever observation and a rather moving one as well.
I like that Davies is a realist in his writing, meaning he feels representative of the majority of football fans. He picks up on Bill Shankly’s famous ‘life and death’ quote and disowns it. Football is not a matter of life and death and there are more important things: the love of his wife and children, beating cancer, the support of friends and family helping him do so. However, football is still an important part of his life and a fantastic tool in helping him cope with the tough times. Supporting Middlesbrough gives Davies moments of glorious release, highs that he will never forget and can look back on at will with a smile on his face. There are tough times, of course, but these serve to accentuate the highs when they do come back around. For every happy time described by Davies, you think of your own moments. Whilst Boro had the League Cup win in 2004 and promotion to the Premier League on the final day in 2016, Sutton have had an FA Cup win against Leeds and promotion to the Football League as the country came through the challenges of lockdown. Reading A Love Letter to Football allows you to reflect on your own glory days as well as those of Middlesbrough.
The author saves the best till last for the reader, who has been on a journey with Davies throughout A Love Letter to Football. Davies found out he was in remission after a stem cell transplant that gave him, in his own words, a ‘second life’. The remainder of the book from this point on tells of the heartwarming support Davies received from Middlesbrough Football Club, including from chairman Steve Gibson, and finishes with the joy he gets from watching his children play the game he loves. I wouldn’t recommend reading this part of the book on public transport, as I did, unless you’re comfortable with bemused commuters giving you funny looks as the tears well up in your eyes.
I have always struggled with the question, ‘Why are you such a big football fan?’ I feel like now, though, I finally have my answer. Just read this book.
About Johnnie Lowery
Johnnie is a football writer. His first book, Six Added Minutes, was written while he was at university and published in November 2019. With strong reviews from the likes of Jeremy Vine and Jacqui Oatley, it is selling well online. His second book, Match Fit, explores mental health in football. It looks to raise mental health awareness and is inspired by Lowery’s own struggles as a teenager, when he did not understand why he was feeling down.