‘Days of Heaven: Italia 90 and the Charlton Years’ by Declan Lynch (2010)

“Look back on those days, on Euro 88 on Italia 90 and the rest of what we call the Charlton era, it certainly wasn’t about football.  It was an overwhelming combination of so many things, a journey the like of which we had never made before, and all we know for sure, is that very few of us made it entirely sober“.

I’m a huge fan of Declan Lynch’s writing.  I first read Days of Heaven not long after it came out in 2010 expecting a more standard telling of the Charlton era – an updated  version of Paul Rowan’s excellent Team That Jack Built. Instead, I found myself devouring an immensely well written look in the Irish psyche, our relationship with success, failure, alcohol and the world.  With some football in it.

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I was 6 during Italia 90, too young to fully grasp what has happening.  By the time USA 94 came around I was 10, and nothing had ever been as wonderful as that tournament.  I’m always amazed that anyone my age, or particularly slightly older, could have grown up in Ireland and not have an irrational obsession with the Irish international team.

So while I was too young to really remember the period Lynch writes about, the portrait of Irishness Lynch paints is instant recognisable to anyone who calls Ireland home.   Lynch looks into the soul of Irish people – and hits on home truths we all know, but maybe can’t or don’t want to admit.

Lynch evaluates the Celtic Tiger creation myth that Italia ’90 was the catalyst for Ireland’s emergence into the world and the boom era.  He recognises the role that failure, emigration and outsiders also had in our success.  In many ways, Lynch also extends the narrative to consider how Italia ’90 and the changes in Ireland at the time, also laid the seeds for the crash that would follow the Celtic Tiger.

As the book jacket says, Lynch considers the sporting, the social and the autobiographical as he paints a picture of a special time to be Irish and the lessons that time teaches us about ourselves.God

Alcohol plays a key part in the story – both in how it happened, and in how Lynch feels we should view it.  I’ve been reflecting on alcohol a lot of late and have given it up for 2018 to get a proper sense of when and why I would drink and the impact on my mental health. Lynch’s comments on alcohol really struck a chord with me.  Any look back on this period, or maybe any period, of modern Irish history would be incomplete without consideration of the role of alcohol.  Ultimately Lynch links the national drink problem with an immaturity as a country, the same immaturity to leads to bad political decision both on the part of politicians and the electorate.  Its a hard view to dispute.

Lynch captures so much of what it means to be an Ireland fan –  the dread, the worry, the hope and the brief unbelievable moments of joy.   He also captures the Ole Ole nature of away trips where its as much about the journey and the story as it is the football – although he is probably more critical of such jollies than I am.

Although I disagree with his lack of trust for those who identify as Ireland fans – you can love football without being overly attached to any one club side – for the most part Lynch is spot on in his observations – about our nation’s immaturity, our relationship with alcohol, and with our sense of ourselves in the world.

Overall, this a must read for any Irish sports fan or anyone seeking to understand how modern Ireland came to be.

ThePope

‘Football Against the Enemy’ by Simon Kuper (1994)

Simon Kuper once got me a job.  I’ve never met him and he doesn’t knew who I am.  His move from sports writing to general pontificating for the Financial Times, however, saved me when I lied in a job interview about reading the FT everyday and was challenged to name my favourite FT writer.  My knowledge of obscure new FT columnists, I was told afterwards, apparently proved my keen interest in financial news and pushed me over the competitors.

But before he was an esteemed columnist, Simon Kuper was a backpacking globe-trotter in his early twenties who managed to write a classic sports book along the way.  Football Against the Enemy is regularly cited on lists of greatest sports books of all time.  It fully deserves the praise.

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Kuper traveled around the world on a shoestring budget meeting football people of all stripes and sizes.  From players and managers, to club officials and ordinary fans, Kuper unearths a story in each country that says something profound about the way football influences that society and how that society influences its football.

Written in the early 90’s he book captures a very particular time, both in football and in politics.  I first read Football Against the Enemy a couple of years after it came out when I was 13 years old.  It blew my mind.  It introduced me to a wider football world I really barely new existed – Barcelona as a symbol for Catalonian independence, that clubs called Dynamo all had KGB connections, and so so much more.  The scope of the book is incredible, with 22 chapters covering countries across the globe.

Re-reading it this week, it shocks me just how much impact this book had on my sports reading over the years.  It opened my eyes to sport as sociology, politics and history.  It is probably impossible for me to give an objective review of this book, and I don’t want to do that.  I mainly want to express my love for it, the feeling of discovery it gave me and my joy at reading so many of the books it clearly inspired.

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Football wise, the book captured a time before the total and complete globalisation of the game/world.  Local attitudes and cultures could still impact the way the game was played more than today.  Society wise, he in particular captured the new era of independence among many Eastern European countries.

Simply put it is a remarkable book that captures the essence of what football means in many different parts of the world.  Its a book of its time and place that tantalisingly introduces scores of topics that deserve (and many now have) books in their own right.  Hard to believe that when Kuper was in Barcelona there hadn’t been a serious work published about the club in 20 years – now I plan to do a post on the 7 or 8 books on FC Barcelona I’ve read myself!

For those interested in more background, Kuper recounts the making of, and the initial reaction to, the book excellently in a podcast interview for “Between the Lines” podcast which is well worth checking out.

10 outta 10

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