Book Review: Get Her Off The Pitch!

Book: Get Her Off The Pitch!

Author: Lynn Truss

Publisher: Harper Collins, Melbourne, 2009 $27.99

Reviewer: Peter Lenaghan

On the surface, this is a pithy, humorous and well-told story about an artsy journalist being thrown head-first into an almost entirely unfamiliar world of professional sport. Looking deeper, it is an exploration of identity, gender and perspective, and along the way it raises tough criticism of sports journalism.

In the mid-1990s, Lynne Truss, author of Eats, Shoots and Leaves, is a critic and TV columnist for The Times newspaper in England. Out of the blue, she is approached to write about sport. Just a few weeks before the UK hosts soccer’s European Championships in 1996, the paper’s sport editors have lunch with Truss, confirm that she knows next to nothing about the game, and ask her to write some match reports during the tournament. She accepts, remarking, “Personally, I had once undergone colonic irrigation for Woman’s Journal. Football could hardly be worse than that.”

After some research to come to terms with the tournament’s basics and watching a few of the early games, Truss is handed the remarkable assignment of watching England’s final group stage match against The Netherlands from an airship circling the old Wembley Stadium in London. For Truss, the extraordinary circumstances become an intoxicating mix. The English belt the Dutch 4-1. She and a friend tagging along for the flight eat chocolate cake while listening to the roar of the crowd above the noise of the airship’s propeller. As Truss puts it, the damage was done. “I had learned to cheer and grumble, love and loathe.” When England, inevitably, is knocked out of the Championships in the semi-finals by Germany, Truss is “blank with grief” and “inconsolable”.

In the ensuing four years, Truss travels Britain and the world to cover sport for The Times. She watches Lennox Lewis and Evander Holyfield fight out a decidedly dodgy draw at Madison Square Garden in New York. She writes about championship darts and, with brilliant insight, learns to appreciate the subtle differences between Pete Sampras’ robotic will to win and Andre Agassi’s popular appeal.

But the graft, travel and loneliness wear Truss down. Disorganised hotels, muddled officialdom, unreliable equipment and impossible deadlines are the source of page after page of grumpiness. Luckily for the reader, she is able to make light of herself and most disasters. One chapter is helpfully entitled Miscellaneous Sports, Travel and All The Misleading Bollocks I Had To Put Up With.

Another chapter is called Golf and the Basic Misogyny of Sport. Sports journalism itself also is a target for analysis on this front. “For four years,” she writes, “week after week, at football stadiums, golf courses and race tracks, I would gaze around me… and think, afresh, ‘Lynne, what the fuck are you doing here?’” She was aware, too, that many of her press box colleagues were wondering the same thing and bristling with a mixture of incredulity and contempt. She writes about being shocked when offensive, sexist jokes are told in the press box. Caroline Wilson’s treatment on The Footy Show and critical responses to Kelli Underwood’s debut as an AFL commentator show a similar undercurrent in Australian football media circles.

Truss’s response to the “insidious” misogyny she encounters, she writes, is to sublimate her sexuality. Ultimately, she believes this is a mistake that is “disastrous for my well-being”.

Despite these problems, Truss does see merit in the “man’s world” of sports journalism. While she fantasises about a world without sport, Truss opines that the craft really is “pure, basic journalism” that is the bedrock of the newspaper industry. The joy she describes when watching Australia and South Africa’s famous tie in the 1999 Cricket World Cup semi-finals is that of a dedicated fan.

But there are aspects of the industry – particularly the associated hype and lack of perspective – that draw her ire. Her most convincing observations centre on sporting memory. While journalists and fans are able to recall past scores and champions, she contends that sport suffers from an absence of emotional memory. Hence, for fans and journalists, “[Every] day is a clean slate and hope triumphs over empiricism.” In Victoria, perhaps it could be identified as Richmond Syndrome. But, as Truss points out, “It’s perfectly all right to have no emotional memory – after all, psychopaths generally manage without, and you don’t hear them complaining.”

This is a refreshing book that asks sport fans to view their passion anew. Truss’s writing is intelligent, witty and full of cutting observations. Of England’s brilliant but tragic footballing star of the 1990s, Paul Gascoigne, she writes, “[The] downside of having a foot like a brain is that you get a brain like a foot, to go with it.” She could be describing our own flawed hero, Brendan Fevola.


  1. I enjoyed Get her off the pitch, especially the chapters about tennis and golf.

    Another good sportswriter’s book is probably the book that The Boys are Back was based on. (It was a really good film with Clive Owen as the star).

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