‘Friday Night Lights: a Town, a Team, and a Dream’ by H.G Bissinger (1990)

Permian football had become too much a part of the town and too much a part of their own lives, as intrinsic and sacred a value as religion, as politics, as making money, as raising children.  That was the nature of sports in a town like this.  Football stood at the very core of what the town was about, not on the outskirts, not on the periphery.  It had nothing to do with entertainment and everything to do with how people felt about themselves”. 

Friday Night Lights likely needs no introduction for anyone who would read a blog about sports books.  H.G. Bissinger chronicles the 1988 season of the Permian Panthers, a high school football team in Odessa, Texas.  The book spawned both a movie and a very successful TV show and the phrase ‘Friday Night Lights’ has become synonymous with the idea of high school football in the USA.

Often proclaimed the greatest sports book of all time, Friday Night Lights is that rare book that fully lives up its praise.  It is also a book that is just as rewarding when read for the second or third time – the tension about how the team will perform is reduced, and the broader story Bissinger sets out to tell comes even more into focus.

Bissinger zooms in on the lives of 6 team members – some black, some white, some poorer than others.  Around these narratives he tells the story of the town – its schools, its history, its people, its politics and its prejudices.

Aside from the gripping football narrative – will the team make it to State – there a number of underlying stories that Bissinger focuses on.  At its core, Bissinger wants to talk about the idea of worshiping high school sports and athletes and the damage that can be caused.  But he cannot resist the allure, the passion and the drama that results from a town putting kids playing football at the very centre of civic life.  Bissinger openly admits that the games he attended remain his happiest sporting memories.

Reading this book in 2018, it’s impossible not to have today’s political environment in mind.  Many books have tried to chronicle the factors that led to Trump’s election, to capture the ‘Real America’, but reading this account from 30 years ago gives you more insight than any of the recent books.   Replace Reagan’s name with Trump and the social commentary could easily have been written today – it’s eye-opening how consistent the issues, concerns and arguably prejudices of everyday working class American’s have been over the 30 year period.

Fundamentally we see a society where life hasn’t lived up the hopes and dreams of many. Bissinger talks about how the town “absolutely worshiped Ronald Reagan, not because of the type of America that Reagan actually created for them but because of the type of America he so vividly imagined” – it’s easy to see Trump as the darker side of that same impulse, rather than helping people forget their problems by imagining a better future, Trump gives his supporters a licence to blame those problems on ‘the other’ – liberals, elites, Mexicans, globalists etc. etc. etc.

Above all, this book is superbly written. The descriptions of the matches are intense, the imagery is vivid and the heartbreak and joy feels very very real.  It’s a gripping, entertaining and simply wonderful book.

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‘Lionel Messi and the Art of Living’ by Andy West (2018)

Every book has a target audience.  For sports books, it’s always a question as to what ‘fandoms’ the book will appeal to, what’s the Venn diagram of people who would like this.  Do you have to follow the sport? Do you have to be a fan of that team? Would a non-sports fan enjoy it?

About half-way through reading Lionel Messi and the Art of Living, I realised that, for this book, the target audience is me.  I love Messi, I’ve read plenty of philosophy, and plenty of pop social-science books.  I read the book during my commutes to and from the office during the toughest week in work I’ve ever had.  I read it while also in a very reflective mood having spent the weekend buying baby clothes for the first time (my wife is heavily pregnant with our first child).  I’ll never be in a more receptive place for some insights into how to live and never more willing to learn than from the greatest footballer of all time.

Did I mention that I love Messi?  I’ve loved him from the first time I saw him play. I sound like one of the 5 million Liverpool fans who claim to have been in Istanbul but I was boring enough to have watched almost all of the U20 World Cup in 2005 when he first emerged.  My brother’s childhood sweetheart had just broken his heart the day we both finished undergrad and, being freshly graduated and jobless, I spent 6 weeks trying to cheer him up with a diet of rented movies and sport on TV.  I probably don’t love Messi as much as my friend who has ‘Messi 10’ tattooed on his arse, but for me, he is the footballer that defines the last 10 plus years of my enjoyment of the game.

Returning to the book, it is very hard to categorise.  It’s part biography, part philosophy, part self-help book, part Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. In some ways it could be read as the foundational book for the Church of Messi – a New Testament built around our one true saviour (from the evils of CR7).  But that may just be by me.

A more balanced, less emotional, review it’s that the book is an interesting approach to examining the factors that breed success in life – by whatever metric you judge that.  West seeks to examine Messi’s football career as a potential guide for how to live – he explores the characteristics which Messi displays and are essential to his success and, by analogy, to success in life in general.

West took the approach of interviewing just 7 people – some in football, some who knew Messi and others with interesting things to say.  Each chapter interweaves these interviews with a study of how Messi demonstrated one of the key characteristics needed to be successful.   The format works really well, the writing is very readable and it’s a book you could easily dip in and out of.

If you want a flavour of what the book is about, West has a great twitter thread (@andywest01) that gives a summary of each chapter.  If you like the sound it from that summary, you’ll love the book.  While I think the overall approach of the book might alienate some readers looking for something more traditional, West has gone for something different and he executes his vision brilliantly.

In summary, I loved it.  You might not like it quite as much but you should definitely give it a shot.

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‘The Binman Chronicles’ by Neville Southall (2012)

I’ve always liked Neville Southall – the legendary Everton and Wales goalkeeper who played into his 40’s.   By the time I was a football obsessive 8 year old, he was already in the later years of his Everton career and the team were a long way away from the League and FA Cup winning teams of the mid-80’s.  Southall appeared to be a throwback to an earlier era as football became increasingly commercially driven.

The Binman Chronicles is a fairly standard ex-footballers autobiography.  It follows an old-school format of focusing heavily on his playing career and, after covering his early years and how he got into professional football, chronologically detailing season-by-season.   The book reads in Southall’s voice but the book could have done with tighter editing with a bit too much repetition – every off-season was boring, he doesn’t like holidays, just loves playing football etc.  It feels too much like interviews with Southall were transcribed directly rather than a ghostwriter editing to capture Southall’s voice and story.

While the book can at times be a bit bland, Southall himself is an interesting character – as anyone who follows him on twitter will know.  Arguably the best goalkeeper in the world during the mid-80’s, he never pushed for big money or a glamours move abroad. A tee-totaller but a piss-taker, he seems to have somehow been both a loner and a senior figure in the Everton dressing room.  Never one to follow the crowd, Southall wears his differences as a badge of pride and seemed to have totally resisted any pressure/temptations to be ‘one of the lads’.   There is a limited amount of detail on his own personal life – apart from his love of Wales and his daughter – but he is ultimately open about his failings and his affairs during his first marriage.

From a footballing perspective, any Everton or Wales fan will be fascinated by the insights into those teams at the times Southall played.  He is open in both his praise and criticism for coaches and fellow players – he has warm words for Howard Kendall and Joe Royle despite some pretty negative experiences with both them, bit is damning in his criticism of Mike Walker’s ill-fated time as Everton manager.   For those who are too young to have experienced English football in the 80’s, the book paints an interesting picture of Everton’s rise to rival Liverpool without really detailing what exactly led to the remarkable improvements during Kendall’s first spell in charge – it seems simply have been better players and good man-management.

I would have enjoyed more about his present work which involves teaching troubled young people.  His own early struggles in education seem to help him build relationships with those who are struggling to find a place in society.  It’s clear that Southall has found a passion that rivals football and is committed to helping.

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‘Fergie Rises: How Britain’s Greatest Football Manager was Made at Aberdeen’ by Michael Grant (2014)

Alex Ferguson’s legacy continues to grow everyday as, over 5 years after his retirement,  Man Utd fail to live up to the standards set during the ‘Fergie era’.  Ferguson stands almost unquestioned as the greatest manager of the Premier League era with his consistent success placing above rivals like Arsene Wenger.

Fergie Rises is an in-depth look at the job which made Ferguson’s reputation and made him the obvious choice as Man Utd manager.  After a relative successful, if at times frustrating playing career, Ferguson took over East Stirlingshire for a year before a 4 year spell at St. Mirren.   Losing his job there, largely due to personal differences rather than the team’s performance, worked out exceptionally well as he was free when Aberdeen needed to replace the Celtic-bound Billy McNeill.

The scale of Ferguson’s achievement at Aberdeen is probably overlooked by many fans.  He won three Scottish League titles, four Scottish Cups, a League Cup and most remarkably the European Cup Winners Cup and the European Super Cup.  Since he left 34 years ago they have never again won the league – although this partly relates to the rising financial dominance of the Old Firm as Celtic and Rangers benefited disproportionately from the growing commercialisation of the game.

While Ferguson inherited a very strong team, his initial genius was to recognise that fact and limit his changes in the early days.  While he struggled to win over some players in his first season, he had the support of key dressing room figures and was able to mould the team in his own image through introducing young players like Alex McCleish.  Ferguson also seems to have been able to learn from mistakes – he came close to losing the dressing room on occasion but always managed to bring the team back together.

All of the characteristics that the world would see in Ferguson as Man Utd manager are evident from his time at Aberdeen – man management skills, use of youth team talent, selective use of praise, creating a siege mentality, displays of extreme anger, an eye for talent players, and above all, a relentless need to win.

Fergie Rises is brilliantly written and a great read.  Grant has read widely and picked up various of discrepancies among how certain events are remembered.  He also appears to have conducted countless interviews with seemingly every major character from the book who are open and frank in their memories of the period.   From the detailed quotes from the players it really struck me that, looking back, they all see their years under Ferguson at Aberdeen as a key period in their lives.

Overall, I highly recommend Fergie Rises for any football fan.  It works as a standalone brilliant story of the rise of a provincial football team to national and international glory.  It’s also a brilliant insight into the formation of one of modern football’s greatest managers. Grant gives a real sense of who Ferguson was at this time in his life and the influences that shaped him before he embarked on the job that would come to define him.

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P.S. Fergie has written a fair few books himself, including one covering this period called A Light in the North – I’m hoping to track down a copy and add some further thoughts to this review.  I have read his two autobiographies – one from 1999 and another from 2013.  I loved the 1999 book but found his much-hyped later book almost unreadably bad.

‘The Beckham Experiment: How the World’s Most Famous Athlete Tried to Conquer America’ by Grant Wahl (2009)

When David Beckham signed for LA Galaxy in Major League Soccer in 2007 it was big news.  Wall to wall coverage on Sky Sports News and hundreds of newspaper articles pontificating on what this meant for the further of soccer in the US of A.   The whole thing seemed to be hyped beyond all measure largely due to Beckham’s celebrity profile rather than his footballing ability.

Looking back now, my gut feeling was that Beckham was partly successful.  Everyone became a little bit interested, further big names followed – including the legendary Robbie Keane – but no-one in Europe actually watched any MLS apart from the odd youtube highlight. Whether the game has grown in the US, I have no idea – but the recent failure to qualify for the Russia World Cup suggests any benefits are been seen by the national team.

For The Beckham Experiment Grant Wahl was given great access to follow Beckham’s first two seasons at the Galaxy.  Reading the book, I was shocked to realise how spectacular a failure those first few seasons were, from a sporting sense at least.  Injuries, fatigue, lack of effort all played a part in the Galaxy having their worst two seasons in the club’s (I can never call a team a ‘franchise’) history.

Wahl paints the picture of an experiment that was a commercial success but – at that point – a sporting failure.  Beckham’s management team were given way too much influence over club affairs, Beckham was made captain despite not having a desire to be the team’s actual leader, and the approach of blowing the budget on Beckham and Landon Donovan left the team hopelessness unbalanced.  Indeed, I was shocked to see just how little some of his teammates earned, with one promising teammate even quitting the game to make more money in a ‘real’ job.

USA 94 legend Alexi Lalas is very much at the centre of the book – the former General Manager was clearly happy to use the book to vent his feelings about how his tenure at the Galaxy went.   The most interesting insights for me were just how different Major League Soccer is from the game played elsewhere with drafts, salary caps and squad limits that make it a unique coaching and management challenge.

Beckham is painted as either secretly manipulative or willfully naive as his team effectively took over the club, ensuring he was made captain and installing Ruud Guilit as manager.  We never get a strong sense of who Beckham is but this is no fault of Wahl’s who gets the other key protagonists to open up in great detail.  Indeed, Donovan may have regretted how open he was when he ultimately had to apologise to Beckham for the candid views he expressed in the book.  On balance, his teammates are reported to have viewed Beckham as a good teammate but a bad captain – a hard worker who wanted to win but someone who was distant from them by virtue of his fame and his wealth.

Overall the book provides a great insight into the state of MLS at the time.  While I’ve attended a couple of MLS games whenever I’m in the States and watched plenty of Robbie Keane highlights over the years, I don’t know enough to know whether the league has progressed.  It has whet my appetite for other books on the modern game in the US (I love books on the old NASL days such as Once in A Lifetime on the New York Cosmos).

Overall, it’s probably a little out of date to be of major interest to most readers still.  But it’s a highly readable, well-written and well-reported book and I’m looking forward to checking out Wahl’s most recent book Football 2.0.  I definitely have a natural bias against US based soccer journalists given the use of different terminology instantly jars, but this book was definitely well worth checking out.

I’ve also recently checked out Wahl’s podcast Planet Futbol which has some really interesting episodes.

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‘Gazza in Italy’ by Daniel Storey (2018)

I’m not sure if this qualifies as a book as it is incredibly short at only 83 pages – the perils of buying an eBook and not checking how long it is in advance.

Gazza in Italy tells the story of England footballer’s Paul Gascoigne’s three-year spell at Italian club Lazio during the peak of Serie A’s reign as the best league in the world.  Gazza was young and relatively fresh from his famous tears at World Cup semi-final in Italia ’90 when Lazio began to show an interest.  The Italian club were flush with cash and seeking to build a Scuddetto winning team around the mercurial Geordie.

The move was delayed due injury but Lazio stayed committed  and Gazza eventually rocked up in Rome.  Storey recounts the highs and lows of Gazza’s time there – from brilliant goals to injury worries, from adoration from the fans to vilification in the media.  At its heart, Storey is trying to square the circle – why is Gazza seen as having failed in Italy but still absolutely adored by Lazio fans 20 years on.  It is a combination of individual

The most nostalgic part of the book for me was the background in how Channel 4 came to show live Serie A and Gazzetta Football Italia –  my absolute favourite tv show as a kid.  Storey poses the interesting theory that the coverage of Serie A in England helped shape the Premiership by exposing the British game to Italian football on a much more regular basis.  However, Storey also appears to use the arrival of Arsene Wenger as the turning point for the Premiership modernising which is probably giving the Frenchman a little too much credit!

Storey also questions whether the move was right for Gazza given his addiction issues.  The great ‘what if’ of Gazza’s career has always been whether there was an alternative path that he could have taken that would have seen him stay on top of his demons.  Given the nature of his addictions it does seem unlikely, but, as Storey sets out, being away from home and highly scrutinised by an invasive media certainly couldn’t have helped.

Storey read widely for the story and the bibliography would be a great starting point for a PhD in Gazzamania.  However, there don’t seem to be any original interviews of the kind that would help the book standout .  I appreciate it’s a very short book that maybe wouldn’t justify the expense – but it makes the €5 price a bit steep for such a quick read.  (I feel a bit bad complaining about price when authors struggle to make money but it would be remiss not to mention it my enjoyment was diminished by feeling I didn’t get a lot of book for my buck).

Overall, an enjoyable and insightful, if very short read.  Interestingly it was originally launched as an audiobook only – narrated by the brilliant James Richardson who hosted Gazzetta Football Italia.

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One Career, Two Books – Tony Adams. Addicted (1999) and Sober (2017) written with Ian Ridley

The titles of former footballer Tony Adams’ two books make clear how his struggles with addiction have shaped large part of his life.

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Addicted was published in 1999 when Adams was still Arsenal and England captain, and less than 3 years after he had revealed his alcoholism and stopped drinking.  At the time it garnered a lot of attention as Adams discussed his career and his battles with alcoholism in stark detail.  It was a striking honest book from a footballer still playing at the highest level.

Addicted covers all of the key aspects of Adams life in different chapters – his addiction battles, his Arsenal career, his England career, the managers he worked with, and the players he played with are all given their own space rather than following a more straightforward chronology.  It works well but does mean there is some repetition – particularly of his England career which inevitably is also discussed as he goes through his Arsenal days season by season.

Adams portrays his younger self as fairly self-involved and oblivious to the world around him.  He shudders to recall how little the Hillsborough tragedy affected him and acknowledges he hypocritically judged players like Charlie Nicholas who, like Adams, enjoyed life outside football a bit too much.

Don Howe and George Graham emerge as the key figures of influence on Adams career – Howe as coach from his early days and Graham as the manager who made him captain and under whom Adams won two Championship titles as well as 4 cup competitions.

However, more than football, addiction and alcohol are at the centre of the book.  It reads largely as Adams’ own attempt to figure himself out. which makes it more interesting than a standard football biography.   It’s a fascinating and at times harrowing read.

I first read it back when I was 17 and shortly to start out on my own booze filled college days.  At the time I had no real appreciation of alcohol but remember being shocked at how an alcoholic could play football to such a high level.

Re-reading it now, aged 34, and one year after giving up booze myself, I experienced the book quite differently – there is the relief of knowing Adams did manage to stay off the booze for the last 20 years combined with a much greater empathy for the attraction that booze had for him.  I enjoyed the book even more this time.

Sober, published last year, picks up where Addicted left off and covers the last 5 years of Adams playing career and his life thereafter.  Sharing the same ghostwriter, Ian Ridley, means that both books have the same voice.  There are some clear differences however.  Sober is more open about family and personal relationships with family members being much more fleshed out in the second book.

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Sober uses the language of AA and recovery much more regularly as Adams has spent the last 20 years maintaining his sobriety.  It can feel a little much at times but it wouldn’t be Adams own voice if it didn’t.   Adams major post career achievement is the founding and ongoing survival of Sporting Chance, a charity dedicated to helping sportsmen and women with addictions.

The end of his playing career is told fairly quickly as Adams moves on to focus on the transition to his post-playing career.  While Addicted told the story of the Arsenal and England captain at the peak of his powers, Sober is mostly the story of an ex-player struggling to find the next step in his career.  It’s interesting to see how a former superstar deals with being less successful in the next phase of his career.

Adams took various courses and coaching badges before trying his hand at management with Wycome. After resigning there, he returned to education before joining Portsmouth as Harry Redknapp’s assistant during their high spending days that included an FA Cup victory.  He ultimately became manager after Harry left but appears to never had had much of a chance due to budget cuts before asking to be fired to save himself from resigning.

From here, Adams career took an odd, international turn.  After briefly coaching in Azerbaijan, he stepped into a general manager / consultant type role in building a small Azerbaijani team from the ground up.    This was followed by a connection with a Chinese football investor as Adams took on a general consulting role for Jiang Lizhang who owned a club in China and purchased Granada in Spain.  He even briefly became Granada manager for a while.

It’s clear Adams feels somewhat unfulfilled with his coaching and management career.  Sober gave me a much better impression of Adam’s post playing career than the easy narrative of failed manager which I suspect many fans of English football have.

Late in the book Sober becomes a series of musings about Arsenal, England, Wenger and the state of British football.  At times it becomes a bit boring and simply the musings of an ex footballer who is annoyed that he isn’t able to contribute more to the game in England at the highest levels.  Ultimately, the book ends as it begins with a reflection on addiction, recovery and staying sober.

Sober makes an excellent companion piece to Addicted but as a stand-alone book it’s good without being great.  While it is equally honest, particularly about Adams mental health struggles, it doesn’t reach the difficult task of living up to its predecessor.  The general musings on the game ultimately let the book down by going on that bit too long.

Overall, the two books together give an incredibly honest and interesting account of a man who achieved great things in the game, but none greater than achieving his sobriety and helping others achieve theirs.