‘Brave New World: Inside Pochettino’s Spurs’ by Guillem Balague (2018)

Brave New World is an in-depth account of Tottenham Hotspurs’ 2016-17 season.  It’s a biography written in the first person and a diary that isn’t really a diary.

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Balague was granted unprecedented access to Mauricio Pochettino and his backroom staff for the duration of the 2016-17 season.  He uses this insight to craft a biography of Pochettino that charts the remarkable transformation he has achieved in a very short time at Spurs.  Perennial bottlers who never live up to their potential, Spurs now are just a few steps (and winning trophies) away from truly belonging among the game’s elite.

The book also serves as a wider biography of  Pochettino’s life – detailing his childhood, his career in Argentina, his special times at Espanyol and his move to the English south coast at Southampton.  It also discusses in detail his close and vital bond with his assistants who form a vital part of his success.

Pochettino comes across as a passionate, motivated and likeable character.  He can but ruthless but for footballing reasons rather than a personal grudge.  He is portrayed as being dedicated, at potential personal cost, to doing everything he can to be successful and to forge a Ferguson-like legacy at Spurs.

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He is very well attuned to the psychological aspect of football – building incredibly close bonds with his players while still seemingly to keep an appropriate distance to enable him to judge their performance fairly. It’s clear that many of his players love him and see him as a vital part of their own ability to achieve greatness.

The book is a fantastic insight into a manager still very much on the up.  It’s a unique approach – putting words in Pochetttino’s own mouth creates great risk for him given he is writing about players still under his charge.  The prose and writing style felt like hard work at times – especially until I got used to it.  Balague is a very good writer however, so I’m inclined to believe that the style of prose was intentional to read more like Pochettino’s own voice.

Overall I would recommend Brave New World for anyone looking for an insight into one of English football’s most interesting coaches.

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‘No Hunger in Paradise: The Players. The Journey. The Dream.’ by Michael Calvin (2017)

“It is impossible not to be struck by the sense of sadness, underpinned by anger.  The venality and vitriol of the senior game is a running sore, an open wound which seeps into youth football”.

Michael Calvin’s recent trilogy of books have established him as the great chronicler of modern British football.  He investigates the human stories of English football, shining a light on the real life experiences of those for whom the game is their actual or potential livelihood.

No Hunger in Paradise follows on from Living on the Volcano which focused on managers and The Nowhere Men which examined scouts.  This time it is youth football that is under the spotlight.

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This is an important book which shines a light on a system which fundamentally fails thousands of children.  Calvin interviews a wide range of people – from coaches and agents to parents and players.  Many of the chapters would make excellent stand alone stories – combined, they paint a depressing portrait of an industry in which children are seen as assets and often quickly discarded when they lose their perceived value.

Calvin, a very experienced journalist, is clearly a very talented interviewer who draws out the complexity of the stories of those he speaks to.  His own voice in the book is mainly one of empathy – its clear he cares passionately about the game and the people he meets.  Calvin also made a documentary with BT Sport based on his book which is well worth checking out.

The most striking fact presented is the young age at which players start to be recruited – Calvin repeatedly paints scenes that seem normal for adults or teenagers until he explains the players are 6 or 7 years old.  More than anything, if the book has a central thesis, its that this chasing of players at a younger and younger age is fundamentally wrong.

There is also an interesting contrast between old school and new school ways of thinking about youth coaching.  While better processes and procedures are undoubtedly important and necessary for safeguarding, you get a sense that Calvin and many of his interviewees feel the use of technology for technology’s sake hasn’t necessarily improved coaching outcomes.

While Calvin’s writing is very readable, this is not an easy read. Calvin constantly, rightly, reminds the reader of the problems in the game.  However, the book does focus on the good guys in a bad industry which gives some hope. Calvin highlights the good work done by many clubs, organisations and coaches who he sees as role models for how things could be improved across football.

At a time when there have been so much coverage of historic abuse within English football, reading this book you cannot help feeling that the football authorities in England have gotten their priorities all wrong.  Welfare must come first and outcomes second.   With the scale of money involved, its unlikely that message will be heard anytime soon.  Large scale change has proven possible when designed to improve the English national team – whether it could again prove possible to implement change designed to help those who ultimately don’t make the grade remains to be seen.

‘The Education of a Coach’ by David Halberstam (2005)

It is a very rare gift to turn your hand from being a defining voice on foreign policy to writing truly great sports books.  Possibly as difficult as winning 5 Super Bowls. In terms of achieving their own personal greatness, Halberstam and Belichick make a perfect match.

Written in 2005, The Education of a Coach is not a simple biography of Belichick.  It is first and foremost a Halberstam book – it jumps around in time and place, it digs deep into his family history and contains chapters that would stand alone as superb and insightful magazine profile pieces.

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The title is apt – Halberstam primarily seeks to understand how Belichick was formed as a coach.  Its a focus on a him as a person and coach with less discussion on the impact that Belichick had on the game of football than you might expect.

What emerges is a portrait of a singular man who wants to be the best coach he can be. He emerges very much as his father’s son, having begun his education at a young age at his father’s side. Steve Belichick was a legendary scout and coach who proved the perfect role-model for his son. As Halberstam himself notes, it is a book about two journeys; the Belichick family’s journey into the centre of American life after their arrival from Croatia and Belichick’s own journey to the top in the world of professional football.

Other key influences on Belichick were his friendships with fellow football obsessives, in particular his long time assistant coach Ernie Adams. Halberstam captures something that Belichick learned from each of the coaches he worked with. In particular, his complex relationship with Bill Parcells is analysed with the senior Bill emerging in my less favorable light.  The book only begins to look at his success at the Patriots in the final 2/3rd’s – as by then Belichick had learned the lessons that would help him achieve such great things.

It is a relatively short book – less ambitious in scope and length as Halberstam’s basketball masterpieces.  As with all of Halberstam’s books, it is superbly well written, incredibly easy to read and thoroughly enjoyable. It leaves with a real sense of a man  obsessed with his sport and destined to be successful.   Halberstam clearly likes his subject, but the book feels like a fair and honest telling of how Belichick became Belichick.

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It is hard to overstate the level of Belichick’s achievement.  Its rare the coach (or person) that merits a significant biography who then continues to achieve great things for more than 13 years after that biography was published.  In terms of seminal achievements, only Sir Alex Ferguson springs to mind.

There is another great book to be written capturing the greatness of what Belichick has ultimately achieved at the Patriots.  The Education of a Coach was published in 2005 after Belichick and the Patriots had won 3 Super Bowls in 4 years.  In an era where the sport was designed to prevent dynasties, the odds on the Patriots remaining at the top of their game post 2005 must have seemed low.  Yet, as we all know, Belichick would go on to reach 5 more Super Bowls (so far), winning 2 of them.  The Education of a Coach is a highly recommend starting point for anyone seeking to understand Belichick and the Patriots.

Any recommendations on later books on Belichick would be greatly appreciated. And if you enjoy this, do seek out all of Halberstram’s other great books.

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