‘The Frying Pan of Spain: Sevilla v Real Betis, Spain’s Hottest Football Rivalry’ by Colin Millar (2019)

Ever since David Beckham signed for Real Madrid, there has been a proliferation of English language coverage of on Spanish football.  As well as podcasts and newspaper articles, there have been some great books., the majority focus on Barcelona and Real Madrid. 

However, for those interested in Spanish football outside of El Classico, there a few gems. I reviewed Euan McTear’s excellent ‘Hijacking LaLiga’ here and he has also written a great book on Eibar.  Colin Millar has now done the same for football in Seville with a comprehensive, and very enjoyable, account of the history of Sevilla and Real Betis.

The Frying Pan of Spain traces the origins, history, key personality and modern development of both football clubs.  In doing so, it also tells the story of the city and its evolving place in Spanish life.

Millar clearly has a deep love for the city and for Spain.  The opening few chapters of the book provide an excellent scene setter – for both football and life in the city of Seville and also in Spain more generally.  He frequently quotes Phil Ball’s excellent book ‘Morbo’ which so brilliantly captures the unique rivalries of the Spanish game and is probably my favourite book on Spanish football.  The opening chapters are a great primer before the book heads back in time to trace the often-disputed origins of both teams.

Millar highlights that the rivalry between the two clubs isn’t ideological in the way some rivalries are, like that between Barca-Real Madrid.  Instead, it’s an intra-city rivalry more akin to a Liverpool v Everton.  The dual-biography nature of the book works quite well.  It is fascinating how often the fortunes of the clubs rose and fell in contrast to the other.

I have to admit, as a kid, I disliked all clubs with ‘Real’ in their title – part love of Barcelona, part my natural Irish anti-Monarchist tendencies.  However, when Real Betis signed Denilson for a world record fee in 1998.  I couldn’t get enough of his step-overs and have had a soft spot for Betis every since.  So I was pretty happy to learn the ‘Real’ title was never really seen as a sign of particular monarchist tendencies!

It’s a relatively long book, but a very easy read.  Full of fascinating insights into the city – its politics, its people and its football – it’s a book that is a very welcome addition to the growing library of great English language books on Spanish football.

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‘Berserk: The Shocking Life and Death of Edwin Valero’ by Don Stradley (2019)

Valero was a Venezuelan boxer with a growing profile on a seemingly inevitable track to fight Manny Pacquiao and to potentially become a superstar.  He was a knockout king and won all of his first 18 fights with a first round knockdown.  He had a career record of 27-0 (all by knockout) and was a 2-weight world champion when he died in 2010.

Tragically however, Valero could never escape his demons.  He turned to cocaine and booze.  His paranoia took over and he murdered his young wife in cold blood.  Not long after being arrested, he took his own life while in prison.

In Berserk, Don Stradley recounts the story of Valero’s rise, the bumps along the way and his ultimate descent.  Different versions of Valero are presented with conflicts  emerging between accounts of how he treated his wife in particular. Stradley does well to separate fact from fiction and to dismiss conspiracy theories while recognising the limits of what we can really know about Valero and his relationships.

It is a short sharp captivating read and one any boxing fan will find interesting.   The punchy style of the book neatly matches Valero’s own relentless fighting style.  I found watching the many YouTube clips of Valero’s fights a great accompaniment to the book.

The book is published by relatively new boxing publisher Hamilcar books as part of it’s true crime imprint.  I’ve been really impressed by their work – both reprinting US editions of boxing classics like Dark Trade and these new short books.  I’m really looking forward to their publication in 2020 of a book by Tris Dixon on brain damage and boxing.

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‘The Long, Long Road to Wembley’ by Dave Roberts (2019)

The happiest I’ve ever been in one single moment, apart from when I first held my daughter, was when Ireland scored a 4th goal in Tallinn to all but guarantee a place in Euro 2012.   I knew I was going to be able to watch Ireland play in a major international tournament – my footballing dream since I had watched every minute possible of USA’94 as a 10 year old.

For Dave Roberts, his dream was to see his beloved Bromley FC play at Wembley, the English national football stadium.  The Long, Long Road to Wembley is Roberts account of his love affair with his local non-league football team.  From the age of 13, he fantasised about his local team making it to a cup final and living up to the previous legendary Bromley teams that had won the FA Amateur Cup.

The book focuses on two phases in Roberts and the club’s lives.  Firstly, Roberts recounts with brilliant humour the period when he was 13 to 20ish and attending every game.  When Bromley was the centre of his universe as he tried to figure out who he was.  He recounts the characters, fashion trends and most of all the defeats as Bromley crashed out of the cup every year.  It captures the essence both of being a fan and of growing up.  It also wonderfully captures the sense of community that football can bring when its not being played in 80,000 seater stadiums where tickets cost £80.

Inevitably, real life eventually gets in the way and Roberts goes more than 30 years without seeing Bromley play.   He remains a fan, getting sent the local paper by his Mum so he could stay in touch with results.   The second half of the book focuses on his return to watching Bromley live after returning to the UK and the eventual Cup run that Roberts had fantasised about for more than 40 years.  Roberts gets sucked right back into his devoted fandom, and obsessive collecting of programmes and club mugs.

The book is brilliantly funny throughout.  Roberts has a wonderful way with words and a self-depreciating yet still joyful take on life.  The Long, Long Road to Wembley is a joy to read and a beautiful take on the meaning of football, fandom and friendship.

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‘Europe United: 1 football fan. 1 crazy season. 55 UEFA nations’ by Matt Walker (2019)

I love going to random football matches whenever I’m abroad.  It has always been hard to explain that the real highlight of a 2 week holiday in Eastern Europe was the 0-0 Champions League second qualifying round 1st leg match between Ferencváros and Sparta Prague.  Little did I realise there is a huge football subculture of ground-hoppers who travel the world solely to go to football games of teams they have no particular connection to.

Matt Walker, a British civil servant, took the idea of ground-hopping to a whole new level and spent a year travelling Europe to attend a league game in all 55 UEFA nations.  Why, you ask?  Why not!  As soon as I saw the book I was immediately jealous and curious to see how he got on.

Europe United is Walker’s account of his travels.  Essentially it’s the story of more than 70 different random football matches in 55 different countries.  As a statistician Walker couldn’t help but keep detailed notes of every game, goal, yellow card etc.  But the heart of the book is the conversations he had along the way.

Walker managed to drum up some media attention for his adventure which led to meeting local fans in almost every destination to share the journey with.  He met a variety of different people along the way all united by their passion for their local team. The book therefore becomes a love letter to football’s place in communities across Europe. Each of the teams he watched are a significant part of their many fans’ lives.  Each game matters to a select group of people who share a common, irrational but wonderful love of their football team .

There is always a risk of a book like this getting repetitive as games and countries blend into each other.  Wisely, Walker broke up the chapters with general collective observations from his travels.

Overall, I really loved this book.  The football team in my hometown folded very recently (RIP Limerick FC) and football more widely in Ireland is on the verge of financial collapse amid corruption and incompetence. If ever a reminder was needed of the importance of the beautiful game, Europe United provides it.

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‘Masters of Modern Soccer: How the World’s Best Play the Twenty-First-Century’ by Grant Wahl (2018)

In Masters of Modern Soccer US journalist Grant Wahl interviews a broad range of figures from across the beautiful game to get a deep insight into how they approach the sport.  Wahl interviews leading players in different positions both on and off the pitch including Vincent Kompany, Xabi Alonso, Manuel Neur, Roberto Martinez, and Michael Zorc.

The book provides a lot of fascinating insight and Wahl has clearly picked exceptionally intelligent interviewees.  It is clear that Wahl put a tremendous amount of time and thought into the interviews and this is reflected in the quality of the book. I particularly liked the sections where he watched highlights of key moments with a player and let them explain their thinking at the time in a level of detail I’ve not seen elsewhere.

For me, the book really shines a light on the intensity and detail that goes into training and preparing for games at the highest level.  The old British football stereotype of managers naming an XI and letting them figure it out on the pitch is well and truly dead. A number of the interviews are fascinating in their focus on set patterns that teams seek to repeat during a game.

I particularly enjoyed the interviews with Christian Pulisic, who is just now making waves with Chelsea, and with Dortmund legend Michael Zorc.  I’m not a fan of Roberto Martinez (and especially his unwillingness to release Irish players for international duty!) but even I have to admit the interview with him is fascinating.

Some of the chapters could have been more tightly edited and a lot of the linking back to American Football was unnecessary in my view.   Any book on soccer aimed at the US market, the use of ‘Americanisms’ can jar with a reader raised on British football – even the phrase ‘masters of modern soccer’ is just not one a non-American would ever use (although being Irish I refer to the sport as soccer a lot of the time!).   Overall however each chapter provides some unique insights and overall is a very welcome addition to any sports book shelf.

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‘Chaos is a Friend of Mine: The Life and Crimes of Conor McGregor’ by Ewan MacKenna (2019)

‘Chaos is a Friend of Mine’ is a Bob Dylan quote from a famous interview with Nora Ephron that he gave in 1965.  Dylan’s view was that chaos existed and all we could do was accept and acknowledge its presence.  Conor McGregor probably hasn’t thought quite as deeply about chaos but he certainty has caused it – good, bad and otherwise.

Chaos is a Friend of Mine is a really interesting book that examines the phenomenon of Conor McGregor.  Irish journalist Ewan MacKenna considers how McGregor has used, helped to shape and in turn been shaped by modern society from the populist rise of racism/Islamaphobia to the growing obsession with fame and celebrity.

MacKenna is a journalist with many fans and possibly just as many  critics.  Totally unafraid to call bullshit, he has wound up pretty much every die hard sports fandom on the internet by calling it as he sees it.  He seems particularly disliked for his attempts to shine a focus on the dark side of Man City’s wealthy owners.  I must admit, I’m a huge fan of MacKenna and share much of his scepticism about modern sport. I’m much less of a fan of UFC and MMA. While I appreciate the talent, work ethic and bravery of the fighters, the brutality of seeing someone get hit repeatedly in the face as they lay on the floor of the octagon just too much for me to enjoy.  

Many of McGregors inner circle refused to speak to the author, a clear sign of McGregor’s need to control his own narrative. Instead MacKenna takes a much broader view than a paint by numbers biography.  Ultimately he tells how a charming young man of immense confidence and no little talent achieved beyond his wildest dreams but seems to have found it difficult to separate who he was from the boarish, racist public character he began to portray.

Chaos is a Friend of Mine is a really interesting read by a very talented writer.  MacKenna’s dislike of the cultish followers of McGregor is well known to anyone who follows him on twitter.  Beware the 1 star reviews of trolls and fan boys that are already apparent on amazon and goodreads.  The book is as objective as it is possible to be unless you believe someone can, or should, be neutral on racism and Islamophobia as legitimate tactics to sell tickets.

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‘What Made Maddy Run: The Secret Struggles and Tragic Death of an All-American Teen’ by Kate Fagan (2017)

Madison Holleran, a promising young American athlete and student, died by suicide in January 2014.  In What Made Maddy Run, Kate Fagan attempts to shed light on why a beautiful, bright and athletic girl seemingly with the world at her fingertips would ultimately take such tragic action.

Sport was a huge part of Madison’s life and her identity.  She excelled at soccer and athletics.  Her decision to focus on athletics and her anxiety about wanting to quit both played major roles in her unhappiness. Her whole identity was wrapped up in her classification as an athlete

Fagan does a lot of deep diving into possible factors leading to Madison’s suicide, from mental illness to the enormous amount of pressure that student athletes endure.  Social media and the impact on users emotional development is suggested as a potential factor in Madison’s difficulties. 

The book began life as a magazine article.  When articles get extended into full length books they can often suffer from a feeling that some of the new material is filler.  I recently read The Coddling of the American Mind about the need to expose kids like Madison to challenges suffers from the same problem of extending insightful shorter work into a longer from book.

At times the overly personal style can be grating as can the constant switching of names from Madison to Maddy and back.  However, it’s clear that Fagan was deeply affected by this story and built a strong relationship with Madison’s family.   Overall, the book works  very well in giving the read a strong sense of who Madison was, the issues she dealt with and the impact she had on those around her.

The book ultimately isn’t about sport.  It’s about the life of a young sportswoman ended tragically early and the lessons that we can learn from Madison.  It’s a difficult read but an important book.

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