by Matt Oldfield
In my experience, football is a subject that often provokes extreme reactions, especially when it comes to reading. For big fans of “the beautiful game”, it can be like a password, helping to unlock an activity previously considered too boring and/or difficult. If I had a pound for every time I’ve seen eyes light up and then pages turn at the sight of Messi or Ronaldo’s names, I would be very rich right now!
For others, however, the very mention of the word “football” gets the eyes rolling and then glazing over. I’m not just talking about the kids reading the books here; I’m also talking about some of the people recommending the books – teachers, librarians, parents, guardians. I can understand concerns about the quality of literature (something we should always question) and the level of advanced knowledge needed, but let’s try to treat football in the same way that we treat other non-fiction topics and other settings for fiction.
I guess I would say that as a children’s football author! But I’ve always tried to make sure that my books are about more than just sport. Even when writing the Ultimate Football Heroes series of non-fiction player biographies, I try to use football as a lens through which young readers can learn about all sorts of other subjects: countries, cultures, journeys, feelings, emotions.
I’d say my first children’s fiction title, Johnny Ball: Accidental Football Genius, is the least football-y of all my books. Although the Balls are a football family, really sport is just the backdrop for the story. Johnny, the main character, is a kid who is searching for something to be good at, something to feel proud of. That something just happens to be managing his school football team (spoiler alert!).
I suppose Johnny Ball could have been a young entrepreneur or film director instead, but for me, few subjects contain and create as much natural drama as football. The pitch provides the perfect arena for all the exciting action to take place: the goalkeeping gaffes, the super subs, and the last-minute magic. But while the book is set in the world of football, the major themes – self-belief, courage, teamwork, overcoming obstacles – are universal. And amongst all the sporting action, you’ll also find lots of talk of ice cream, crime-fighting dragons, dance-offs, and even the story of the Trojan Horse. As Billy the Bully, the Tissbury Primary captain, says to Johnny at one point, “what’s this got to do with FOOTBALL?”
So, if you’re thinking about reading or recommending Johnny Ball: Accidental Football Genius, don’t worry if you don’t know your Rainbow Flick from your Ronaldo Chop. An interest in the game might come in handy, but you really don’t need to be a football genius yourself to understand and (hopefully!) enjoy the book.
Any opinions expressed my not truly reflect those of the FCBG.