David Griffin Book Review: 'Best of Enemies' by John Shawcroft

Saturday 2nd September 2023
& News

With an unmatched knowledge of Derbyshire County Cricket Club, John Shawcroft has already authored the definitive histories of the club, in 1970, 1989, and 2020 as well as numerous other excellent books covering Derbyshire cricket and much else – Heritage Officer, David Griffin, reviews his latest work.

His latest offering, Best of Enemies focuses on Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire County Cricket Clubs, and Derby County and Nottingham Forest Football Clubs and is published by the Association of Cricket Statisticians and Historians who continue to produce high quality books covering a wide range of cricketing subjects.

Following the introduction, the 246-page book includes 32 chapters with titles like ‘Humiliation at Wirksworth’, ‘Larwood and the Title’, ‘Dog Fight at Trent Bridge’ and ‘Billy and Nigel’ and covers the cricketing and footballing rivalry across the county divide between Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire.

A graphic description of the geographic landscape of the region is followed by accounts of the early matches played in both sports in the two counties which in turn gives way to a beautifully written history of the rivalries which continue to this day.

Nottingham was an important early staging post for the development of cricket, but Derby, Chesterfield and Ilkeston were not far behind and supported by the early railway network, cricket soon began to expand in the area.

Football saw the formations of Notts County, Derby County and Nottingham Forest and as the 19th century ended both games had expanded significantly.

Shawcroft’s writing style makes for an easy read, as usual; always to the point, accurate on everything from historical facts to data and statistics, and regularly backed up with contemporaneous accounts or quotations.

He delves into the history of league cricket on each side of the border but also widens the subject matter by illuminating the reader on the privations and squalor suffered by many of those who worked down the local coal mines, often seemingly only coming to the surface to play sport.

Early legends like Steve Bloomer, George Gunn, Bill Mycroft, and Grenville Morris are all discussed as are several thrilling football encounters in the early 20th century before World War I brought a halt to proceedings in both sports and resulted in 25 deaths of footballers and cricketers from Derby County, Nottinghamshire Forest, and the two county cricket clubs.

Shawcroft has uncovered some delightful anecdotes, the best of which includes the story of cricketer Walter Keeton who was born in Shirebrook – in Derbyshire – but who claimed to have been born in Nottinghamshire. The story goes that the county boundary passed through the middle of the house where he was born and that the bedroom in which Keeton was born was in the Nottinghamshire half. These things mattered at a time when birthplace and residence were important factors in qualifying to play the county game.

The writer also highlights the Derbyshire versus Nottinghamshire game at Ilkeston in 1935 watched by 8,000 spectators on the opening day. Derbyshire’s side included ten players born in the county while of Nottinghamshire’s eleven, nine were born within their county boundary. Small wonder that local people identified with their county team.

The 1936 County Championship-winning season will be a highlight for Derbyshire readers despite being set alongside Nottinghamshire’s mass of successes, while Shawcroft reminds us that the footballing rivalry between Derby and Forest was tempered by the fact that between 1919 and 1969 there were a mere four seasons in which both clubs were in the same division.

Football nonetheless took centre stage as first Derby County and then Nottingham Forest rose to the summit of English football under the same manager, the remarkable Brian Clough, before Forest won back-to-back European Cup titles under Clough. Peter Taylor features heavily too.

Both county clubs enjoyed some success in the final quarter of the twentieth century while the two main footballing outfits also reappeared in the top division of the English game more recently and Shawcroft documents these in detail.

He describes the sad ending of first-class cricket at Ilkeston and intersperses the book with occasional personal reminiscences all of which add to the sense that this is not just a book about sport in a historical context, but also a labour of love from a man who has a genuine affection for the games and clubs he writes so well about.

Virtually every great cricketer and footballer who ever appeared for these four sporting clubs is mentioned, often fondly, with many observations based on the author’s own experiences.

As an exercise in documenting sporting rivalry this book is fascinating, but for anyone with a pitch in one or more of the four camps it’s an absolute must-read.

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