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Response to Review of Four Histories About Early Dutch Football 1910-1920: Constructing Discourses

I would like to thank Matthew McDowell for providing a fair and balanced review of my book. He notes two of my main aims (to provoke readers to consider the nature of history and archival work, as well as engaging a wider audience in this debate using sporting history as a medium to do so) and I am particularly grateful for his engagement with both of these themes, his appraisal of the proposals that I have presented and his warm and considerate comments as well as his critique of my success in meeting both aims.(1a) Although, naturally, I do not entirely agree with all of his perspectives, his review has helped me gain a greater appreciation of my own place within the field as well as some personal concerns which were perhaps lurking under the surface of the book. These undoubtedly changed the way I presented my histories and will inform how I approach my own work in future.

McDowell notes that: (1) I take a ‘militant’ approach to my consideration of the differences between ‘history’ and ‘History’, between mere writing about the past and the practice of professional historians in universities and elsewhere; (2) that I encompass all historians within my critique of the field by virtue of not providing specific references or examples of those with whom I disagree, providing an at times ‘passive aggressive’ approach and; (3) that I overplay the novelty of my work by not acknowledging the wider debate. In regards to these critiques, while I certainly did not consciously intend the second or third, I have to concede that – especially in the introductory chapter – this can be the case. It is worth me being explicit immediately in regard to the second point by saying that I certainly do not wish to lump all historians (of whatever form) together or to treat all historians as ignorant of theories and challenges to the field; if this is the impression I have given, then this is not one I would want to further.

Dealing with the first two points, McDowell sees the tone in places as being passive aggressive or militant towards other historians. This is perhaps a reflection of my own uncertainty about my position within the field of history (or perhaps sports history or Dutch history); the uncertainties of an Early Career Researcher in an uncertain career market, constructing his first book (from a sprawling doctoral thesis), at the margins of the fields of both history and sporting history, after nearly a decade of research and with changing opinions, ideas and aims. At the time of writing this book, my perspective of the historical field was coloured by my own conditions – just as my perspective on sport was too. A perspective of being on the outside, of not quite fitting in and struggling to find a place within professional academic History. At times, I try too much to resolve this uncertainty by demonstrating my worth to the field while also being frustrated at my place within it. As de Certeau notes, the place of the author is vital in the historical production (2a); in this work perhaps it was even more important than I had realised.

That I chose not to address specific historians’ work was a deliberate choice. I am aware of most of the works McDowell cites (although not all, and I am genuinely grateful for the opportunity to engage with those I am not aware of – coming into contact with new ideas and theories was another personal aim in constructing this book). However, I was acutely conscious of the antagonistic personal debates between ‘postmodernists’ and ‘traditionalists’, epitomised by responses to Keith Jenkins’ work, and wanted to avoid this form of personal attack at all costs.(3a) Instead, I hoped to outline how I believe history could (and in my case did) operate. That the first chapter focused on my own methods and ideas was intended to allow the reader to critique or follow my approach, to see where the gaps would be in the histories constructed.

While I disagree with McDowell about ‘linguistic red herrings’ and stand by the theoretical ideas behind my work, I will concede that by taking this approach, which is indeed sometimes provocative and lapses into the polemical, and by not referring to newer debates in historiography or sporting history explicitly, it can give a sense of an attack against something without a defined target or a defence against something which seemingly isn’t there. Though I certainly intend to be provocative, I did not want to be provocative just for the sake of it. At times, my attempt to be provocative may work against the idea of history as a reasoned debate, which I passionately believe in and with the benefit of hindsight, it is an approach which may not work as effectively as I would have liked.(4a) This is certainly one of the gaps in this work and something that I will consider in future. Perhaps it can be put down to youthful exuberance! I do hope, however, that this theoretical introduction will still be of use to readers to consider the historical proposals which follow, to reflect on where they have come from and perhaps to think against them and propose new challenges.

Addressing the third point, McDowell notes that ‘Piercey has managed to convince himself of the novelty of his own work’. I found this sentence particularly striking, not because of the critique, but because it was precisely my lack of certainty about the work which has perhaps led to ‘novelty’ being overstated. My uncertainty in the field and desire to demonstrate that my work is something new (and as any historian who has filled in a request for funding knows ‘new’ means ‘relevant’ and ‘good’) has led to an overstating of its novelty. Indeed, as I state in the introduction, no work operates in isolation and while I believe aspects of this are novel, such as the collection of postmodern theory and practice, of different approaches to Dutch history, as well as the topics presented (which I believe do provide the reader with new perspectives on Dutch sporting history), I would certainly not wish to suggest this work operates within a vacuum. If this is the tone of some parts of this book, then it does both a disservice to the many historians who do valuable work across the field(s) and indeed my own view of the concept of ‘novelty’. Perhaps, the current climate for ECR’s, where constant job applications, funding requests and the need to demonstrate novelty and difference as a badge of relevance, has left another mark on this work I that had not noticed.

This book may try too much to appeal to different audiences; this book is intended to be both popular and academic, to contribute to historiography, to Dutch history and to sporting history (in that order!). Whether or not this book succeeds in its aims of bringing historical debate to a wider sporting audience (or indeed sporting history to a wider audience of Dutch historians) is something only time will tell. I, too, would doubt whether fans on the terraces will be discussing this work (and indeed I wouldn’t want to ruin a good game of football in this way!). However, as chapters three and five of my work hoped to demonstrate, there are numerous different individuals involved in the game of football. Many discussions about sport take place away from the terraces and many of those who take part are inquisitive and interested in how sport interacts with wider society and the world around them and about how stories about sport are made; these are people whom I believe could be better served by the range of sporting works available and it is in part this audience I hope to reach.

At the heart of my book is a belief that history is about sensible and measured debate about the past and how it influences and constructs the present and future, but one which also needs to be constantly challenging itself; I am grateful to McDowell that he has engaged with this and for the opportunity to reply to his comments. I hope that I will have the opportunity to discuss the proposals put forward in this book with others in a similar fashion. While he and I clearly approach history from slightly different theoretical perspectives, I would wholeheartedly agree with his final sentiment. It is indeed imperative for me (I would not want to speak for others here) to find a common language to communicate my ideas about history and sport, which I believe are of importance to the world we live in today; to show how the world around us can be constructed and changed through the application of power and to promote the idea of open and honest personal reflection as part of the historical process, not only something that takes places beyond the eyes of the reader. If I have not quite succeeded in this aim in this work, then that is all the more reason to try again!

Notes

  1. I would just add that in addition to its availability at low cost from UCL Press it is freely downloadable without cost via this website https://www.ucl.ac.uk/ucl-press/browse-books/four-histories-about-early-dutch-football [accessed 23 April 2017].Back to (1a)
  2. Michel de Certeau, The Writing of History (New York, NY, 1988), p. 57.Back to (2a)
  3. An appraisal of Jenkins’ work, some of the criticisms of it and links to these, can be found at http://www.history.ac.uk/reviews/review/1266 [accessed 23 April 2017].Back to (3a)
  4. That it has provoked a response and a challenge to my ideas which will help me consider my approaches in future, which was also a key aim of the work, is, however, clear.Back to (4a)