‘I Can’t Help Falling in Love With You: Growing Up as a Football Addict’ by Greg Whitaker (2019)

I Can’t Help Falling in Love with You is a personal account of Greg Whitaker’s relationship with football fandom.  A die hard fan of Hull City and England, Whitaker recounts the highs and lows of his 20 years as a football fan.

The years covered were quite the roller-coaster ride for Hull with multiple promotions and relegations mixed with managerial changes and star signings.

Whitaker uses his experiences as a fan to reflect more broadly on the modern game.  Ultimately he finds himself impossibly drawn to the game even when he isn’t enjoying the experience.  He describes himself during this phase as a football addict, because why else would you spend time and money engaging in a hobby you aren’t enjoying?

The book works best when it captures the excitement, the glee, the sheer wonder of football when your a kid.  Whitaker vividly recalls the sensations of that time in your life when sport means so so much and the adult world is yet to intrude with its boring non-football concerns. As a coming-of-age memoir of life as a football fan it’s a very enjoyable read.

At times the ‘football addict’ theme is stretched a little too far.   I suspect Whitaker may underestimate how much his apparent falling out of love with the game is related to simply growing up and finding more (objectively) important things in life to take up his time. Perhaps the book tries to be too many things at once and may have been better served with a tighter edit.

I must admit that on realising how young Whitaker is (mid to late 20’s) I found myself being a bit cynical. Sure what does anyone know at that age! This obviously is my own  failing rather than any issue with the content of the book!  Subjectively it did influence my opinion though.  Ultimately the quality of the writing and the passion and conviction of the author overcame my (mid 30’s) cynicism.

Overall it’s a welcome addition to the library of football fan memoirs following in the footsteps of Nick Hornby’s masterpiece Fever Pitch.  I look forward to reading whatever Whitaker does next.

‘Boot Sale: Inside the Strange and Secret World of Football’s Transfer Window’ by Nige Tassell (2019)

Watching sport (or reading sports books!) is really just one small part of the package of being a sports fan.  For many, the gossip, the rumours, the transfer news, is almost as much a part of the fun as the games.

For soccer fans, the off the pitch drama heightens twice a year – over the Summer and again in January when the transfer window is open.   Boot Sale is a behind the scenes look at the football transfer window to examine both how it works and why fans are so drawn to what is essentially 24 hour slow-moving recruitment news.

The book works really well because of the breath of people Tassell interviews.   He talks to a vast range of people whose working lives are heavily impacted by the transfer window – lawyers, players, managers, chairmen, agents, scouts, analysts, journalists, broadcasters, and bookie as well as to fans who get caught up in the drama of it all.

Tassell is a very good  interviewer who gets real insights from those working behind the scenes on transfers.   A lot of the stories he tells are quite familiar to me as someone who watches a disturbing amount of sky sports news on deadline day.  However, Tassell has made excellent choices in who he interviews for the book ensuring each section contains loads of fascinating detail and insight for any reader.

A few sections on the book particularly stand out.  The interview with Benik Afobe, a player who has made multiple deadline day moves, is insightful about the ups and downs of life for a player always maybe just one move away from realising his potential.  The section with a bookie discussing how the odds for betting on transfers are set and fluctuate is really interesting.

Overall this a very entertaining and enjoyable read for any football fan.  It’s definitely got me looking forward to this Friday’s transfer deadline day.

boot sale

‘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.

frying

 

‘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.

dave roberts

‘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.

Europe United

‘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.

Masters of Modern SOccer

‘The Next Big Thing: How Football’s Wonderkids Get Left Behind’ by Ryan Baldi (2019)

Every football fan remembers those prodigies they pinned their future dreams on only for their apparent potential to never be realised.  As an Ireland fan, I was overly excited when Anthony Stokes scored nine goals in just four games for Falkirk and again when 16 year old Terry Dixon was called up to the senior Ireland squad.  Even now I can’t resist getting giddy at the potential of young strikers Troy Parrott, Michael Obafemi and Aaron Connolly all of whom I’ve barely seen play yet whom I am certain will be world beaters.

So while we are all familiar with the hope, hype and unrealised dreams, little consideration is given by most to the fact the the young men who don’t make the big time have to find a way to get on with their lives. The Next Big Thing tells the stories of 15 highly-touted players who never quite reached the levels that was once predicted for them.  Some enjoyed decent careers, others were out of the game by the end of their teens.  The book covers a fascinating mix of players including Championship Manager legend Cherno Samba, Dutch international winger Andy Van der Mede and one time Beckham-rival Ben Thornley.

Baldi conducted interviews with the 15 players profiled and many others who knew them or coached them during their formative years.  Each one brings an interesting perspective as to why they didn’t quite make it at the highest (or in some cases, any) level.  The reasons range from injuries to changing managers, from ill-advised transfers to simple bad luck, from addiction to poor attitude.  Each player is fairly forthright and honest in accounting for their failures (to the extent that not making it against ridiculously long odds can actually be considered a failure!).  There may be some self-selection to this – those willing to talk to the author for a book like this may be those who have best been able to come to terms with how their career panned out.

Each chapter would work well as a stand-alone article as each is an entertaining and interesting story in its own right..   The book broadly lets the stories stand on their own with some attempt to tie the pieces together in the concluding chapter.  If, like me, you read the book over a very short space of time it can get a little repetitive but that in itself is indicative of how similar the players’ stories ultimately are.  It think it may work best as a book to dip in an out of and read a chapter at a time.

The book ultimately serves as a reminder of the perils of forgetting that young footballers are children or young adults first and footballers second.  It also suggests that, while improvements have definitely been made over time in how clubs treat their youngsters, a lot of care is needed to ensure that the end of professional football career does not result in significant life problems.  Overall, The Next Big Thing is well written, well researched and a welcome addition the English football library.

Baldi