‘The Club: How the English Premier League Became the Wildest, Richest, Most Disruptive Force in Sports’ by Joshua Robinson & Jonathan Clegg (2019)

The English Premier League (or EPL) has for 20 plus years been the highest profile football league in the world.  Serie A may have been better in the 90’s, La Liga may have the world’s greatest players in the 2010’s but for sheer visibility, interest and commercial success the EPL has reigned supreme for over 20 years.

The Club tells the business side of the Premier League’s rise and continued success.   It’s a tale of TV broadcast deals, merchandising strategies and corporate takeovers.  It chronicles the various decisive moments that turned the EPL into the marketing, financial, cultural and entertainment behemoth it is today.

This book tells the story chronologically from how Sky won the pivotal TV rights contracts, through the rise of Man Utd and Arsenal, the era of the oligarchs and finally its look forward to the future (spoiler alert, the EPL is likely to still dominate unless we end up with a European Super League).

The book zooms in on a variety of different clubs at different times since 1992.  Many of the stories will be familiar to long-time football fans.  These vignettes are at their most interesting when they detail failures like Randy Lerner’s ill-fated spell in charge of Aston Villa, and Hicks & Gillett’s best forgotten time in charge of Liverpool.

Its main characters are Richard Scudamore, the long serving chairman of the Premier League, and Manchester United, the team who have long led the way commercially.  As the fates of others rise and fall, Scudamore and Utd remain ever present at the top controlling things.  As Scudamore steps aside (and the EPL fail to find a replacement), and Utd continue to fall from grace, it starts to look like this may truly be a new era for the EPL off the pitch!

The book is extremely well-researched.  Robinson and Clegg, both Wall Street Journal reporters, have clearly conducted a significant amount of interviews with anyone and everyone in the world of football. With the benefit of hindsight, it is fascinating to look back at those pivotal moments and decisions when the world’s most popular football league was unalterably changed.

Overall, The Club is extremely readable.  It’s got enough new information for long time  fans of English football while remaining accessible enough for more casual soccer fans.  There are some stories I would have liked it to examine in more detail, but narrowing the business story of the last 25+ years of top-flight English football down to a single book was always going to require some editorial judgement!

th club

‘Cristiano and Leo: The Race to Become the Greatest Football Player of All Time’ by Jimmy Burns (2018)

Unsurprisingly, there have been plenty of biographies and books written about both Cristiano Ronaldo and Leo Messi, the two greatest footballers of the modern era.  I’ve never been tempted to read any of them.  Both players are so familiar, their back stories widely reported, their playing highlights both vividly memorable and re-watchable.

I picked up Cristiano and Leo purely because it was written by Jimmy Burns.  Hand of God by Burns was the first football book I became obsessed about.  Having generally only read player autobiographies till then, I was blown away by the warts-and-all depiction of Maradona’s flawed genius.   The only book that rivaled it for me was Burns other book Barca, which I devoured when it was published in 1999.

A dual-biography, Cristiano and Leo details the background and career of the two best football players in the world.  Their childhood is explored as Burns builds a picture of the key influences on their lives and the experiences and family dynamics that helped shape both men.   There are no surprises and both men come across broadly similarly to their public persona – Cristiano as vain, selfish, but determined to work harder and better than anybody else, Mess as less interested in publicity but unafraid to exercise his own considerable power.

The strength of the book is Burns’ own reporting. Burns interviews a vast number of people getting fascinating insight from big names like Florentino Perez, but also from people who knew both men during their childhood.  Burns own analysis is interesting and adds some colour to what is generally a fairly conventional biography (albeit a dual one).

The book suffers from being a bit too detailed about games, seasons and goals which many readers will be intimately familiar with.  It’s a peril of any biography of a player who is still active and even more so when it’s covering the two most watched players in the world.

Ultimately, I enjoyed the book and Burns’ insights, interviews and analysis.  I suspect the book will age well and is one I’ll enjoy even more many years from now when I want to reflect on how privileged I am to have been able to see both Cristiano Ronaldo and Messi play live in person and 100’s of times on TV.

Crstiano and leo

‘250 Days: Cantona’s Kung Fu and the Making of Manchester United’ by Daniel Storey (2019)

As a kid I was a Man United fan.  The day Eric Cantona retired I realised that wasn’t actually true.  I was a Cantona fan and any residual affection for United slowly waned until a few years later when I stop pretending I cared.   Cantona was that kind of player, one who could make a kid fall in love with a team and a sport simply by turning up his collar and chipping the goalkeeper.

250 Days chronicles the aftermath of the infamous day at Selhurst Park when Cantona kung fu kicked a Cyrstal Palace fan. The mercurial Frenchman had been man-marked closely all game and in frustration kicked his marker early in the second half.  As he made his way to the tunnel, he launched into the crowd, aiming a kung-fu kick at the chest of a taunting Palace fan.

It caused a sensation like no other in my 10 year old life to that point.  Even before the days of 24 hour Sky Sports News, it dominated news coverage for weeks as speculation mounted that the mercurial Frenchman would be fired, banned for life or imprisoned.  Ultimately, he ended up with a 250 day ban stretching into the following season.

The focus of the book is what happened during this period, and how it shaped Man United’s next period of success. United’s legendary manager Alex Ferguson saw an opportunity and Storey chronicles how both men used this time to help develop and inspire the rising generation of United players (the so-called ‘Class of ’92’).

Cantona

250 Days is a well written and entertaining account of this turbulent period in United history.  Storey blends together the accounts from the key figures into a compelling narrative and builds a very convincing case for his central thesis.  Cantona and Ferguson both emerge with significant credit for their ability to turn a potentially career ending attack into a positive experience binding player, manager and club closer together.

The books suffers slightly from the lack of original reporting – Storey has read and absorbed a huge amount of material covering United and Cantona during that time, but for those sad people, like myself, who have read more than half the bibliography, the book feels a little unfresh. If you haven’t read Gary Neville’s autobiography, Alex Ferguson’s autobiographies (please never read his later books – they are awful) and the entertaining Cantona on Cantona this probably won’t be a problem for you though!

Much like Storey’s previous book on Gazza’s time in Italy, the book feels too short for it’s price point.  Obviously this is the publisher’s decision rather than Storey’s but it does cloud the reading experience.  Storey is prolific in churning out incredibly high quality articles across a variety of publications.  I’d be very excited to read a full length book of his that shined fresh light on some similar aspect of 90’s football.  I’ve said a few times there I’d love to see an English language book on Sacchi’s Milan team in case he is looking for suggestions!

All in all, an entertaining read.

250 days

 

 

‘One Football, No Nets’ by Justin Walley (2018)

FIFA often boasts about having more member nations than the UN.  But what about those sub-national regions that aren’t recognised by FIFA and don’t get to make the leap that Gibraltar have made and compete against the established nations?   In recent years there has been a growing interest in these football minnows with books like Up Pohnpei leading the charge.  The CONIFA World Cup last Summer gained plenty of attention as the minnows of the world competed against each other in London.

One Football, No Nets is set in this world where football meets questions of regional sovereignty.  The book tells the story of Justin Walley’s attempts to take the Matabeleland side (a region in Western Zimbabwe) to the CONIFA tournament.  Walley, a British man coaching in Latvia, was determined to try his hand at international football management and swapped his relatively comfortable live for the unknown in Africa.   He devoted more than a year attempting to forge the team into shape and manage the logistics (and finances) of getting them to London.

The story is told in an in-depth diary format.  At times the logistical challenges appear insurmountable with limited resources, poaching of players and visa problems.  Walley goes to all possible lengths to drum up support and funding for the team – including enlisting the help of the legendary Bruce Grobbelaar.

The book is at its best when giving insight into the struggles of daily life in Zimbabwe during the final days of Robert Mugabe’s long period in power.  Walley captures the paranoia, fear and cautious optimism present in the country on the cusp of historic regime change.

If the book has one weakness, it is that players’ own stories and personalities don;t feel fully developed.  Ultimately none of them remain memorable in the way that, for example, the lady who Walley lodged with does.

The case for why Matabeleland should have a team separate from the Zimbabwe national team is never made quite clear in the book.  I’ve read that the region is culturally and ethnically distinct in many ways from the rest of the country, but Walley doesn’t dwell on this in the book.  Throughout the story he seemed very cautious about expressing sentiments of regional sovereignty which would have provoked the anger of the Zimbabwean authorities (and understandably so!).

There is an additional final chapter which at first glance appears unnecessary but is just too entertaining to have been left out.  Walley covers his time as a fan at the World Cup in Russia during which he became a mini-celebrity and foreign brand ambassador for the region of Tatarstan.

Overall, the book is a pleasure to read.  Walley writes with openness, honesty and humour about the challenges he faced in trying to fulfill his, and the players’, dream. It is quite a personal book and your reaction to the book may very will mirror your feelings about the author.  For me, Walley comes across as one of life’s dreamers – a man determined to experience the world rather than simply pass time.   As I type this in my office at lunchtime while looking at Walley’s twitter feed showing him enjoying a trip to Brazil, I can’t help but admire and envy his courage, free spirit and sense of adventure.  An interesting man and an interesting book.

onefoot

‘Hijacking LaLiga: How Atlético Madrid Broke Barcelona and Real Madrid’s Duopoloy on Spanish Football’ by Euan McTear (2018)

When David Beckham signed for Real Madrid, the average English-speaking football fan  became exposed to a lot more coverage and commentary on Spanish football.   The addition of Beckham to the Galactico project made La Liga the hottest property in global football.   By the time Beckham left Leo Messi was on the rise, Spain would soon win Euro 2008, and Cristiano Ronaldo would arrive the following year.  The Messi and Ronaldo era, combined with Spanish dominance in international football, saw a continued rise in the interest of the English speaking world in Spanish football.

Once consequence of this greater interest has been the proliferation of English language books on Spanish football.   A number of great English language books on Spanish football do predate the Beckham era – most notably for me, Barca by Jimmy Burns and Morbo by Phil Ball.  But the majority of such books in recent years focus especially on Barcelona and Real Madrid.

Euan McTear has wisely decided to look elsewhere in the fascinating landscape of Spanish football.  His first book, Eibar the Brave, was about tiny Eibar and this book, Hijacking LaLiga focuses on the rise of Atlético Madrid in recent years.

Hijacking LaLiga is a comprehensive look at the origins and modern history of Atlético who have achieved remarkable success under manager Diego Simeone.  McTear traces the history of the club, highlighting the key moments the enabled to club to survive and thrive through the 20th Century.  It’s a fascinating history but less politically charged that those of Barca and Real.   There is also really interesting details on the chaotic reign of Jesús Gil, the President who somehow seized ownership of the club away from the fans.

The main focus of the book is on the period since Atheli’s relegation in 2000 and how the club rebuilt to break the seeming impenetrable duopoly of Barca and Real.  McTear credits a number of factors – the first Europa League triumph shattered the myth that Athleico were cursed, better TV deals improved their financial ability to compete, the combination of youth team products like Koke, tough battling players like Diego Godin and superstars like Costa and Greizmann provided ideal, and above all the coaching of Diego Simeone and his staff was the perfect match for the players and the club.

The book provides a very interesting and detailed insight into the most interesting story in modern Spanish football.  It’s well written and an enjoyable read.  My only compliant is that it jumps around in time and topic quite dramatically at times and a cursory knowledge of the timeline of events is a big help as you read – I kept forgetting which year they won which tournament and was left slightly confused as the narrative jumped between different seasons.

Overall highly recommended and great to see English language books focus on the wider story of Spanish football.

athleti

 

 

‘How to be a Footballer’ by Peter Crouch (2018)

I don’t think there’s a more likeable footballer in England than Peter Crouch.  Immediately memorable as, at 6’7, he towers over any other Premier League player, Crouch went from early ridicule to broad recognition as a pretty talented player.   He holds the record for most Premier League headed goals, he appeared in Champions League final for Liverpool, scored at the World Cup finals for England and has an impressive 22 goals in 46 England international appearances.  He is also very very funny as his twitter usage and widely quoted one-liners reveal.

Likeable as Crouch is, I’m not sure I’d want to read his autobiography (turns out he published one at age 26 in 2007!).  The USP is that he is really tall and got some stick until he proved he’s actually quite a good player – not the stuff of a bestseller.  Wisely, Crouch has written a very different book to the standard footballers fare.  How to be a Footballer is a wide lens look at the game from a multitude of angles – the dressing room, transfers, agents, etc.  Crouch dips into his vast stock of anecdotes to illuminate life behind the scenes in the Premier League.

It’s an entertaining read that any fan of English football will enjoy.  The jokes work, the anecdotes are never too cruel, and there’s plenty of the self-depreciating humour you’d expect from the man who famously answered the question of what he would be if he wasn’t a footballer with the answer “a virgin”.  It’s light, informative and very funny.  An ideal Christmas present for any football fan.

crouchie

‘The Gaffers: Mick Mc Carthy, Roy Keane And The Team They Built’ by Paul Howard (2002)

When a writer decides to select an ongoing event or situation to cover for a non-fiction book, there’s always the unknown question of what happens if the situation changes radically?  The coach gets fired, the team turns out to be crap, the player gets a drugs ban etc. etc.

Howard decided to write The Gaffers in 2001 looking at how the awkward double act of Mick McCarthy’s management and Roy Keane’s captaincy had driven Ireland to the 2002 World Cup in Japan & Korea.   Little could Howard have known that the dynamic of their relationship would become the biggest story in world sport as Keane ultimately ended up leaving the squad in the incident that will forever be known simply as ‘Saipan’.  Howard ultimately ended up writing about a relationship that was dissected over in immense detail – I’ve no idea whether it was good or bad for sales but it certainly made it a different book than would have been intended.

handshake

The Gaffers has sat in my ever expanding to-read pile for about 10 years.  McCarthy’s re-appointment as Ireland manager (as Keane departs as assistant manager) has led me back to books from that era of Irish football.

Howard paints a picture of both McCarthy and Keane through the eyes of the other members of the Ireland squad.  McCarthy was the former captain who showed great loyalty to players and knew how to handle nervous young stars.  Keane was the champion who refused to settle for second best and resented time away from home if it wasn’t being put to maximum use.

Howard’s thesis is that the combination of a supportive manager and a driven demanding captain inspired a team of mixed talents to outperform their individual abilities.  In hindsight, it seems obvious that the relationship could only continue for so long, but all logic suggested they would make through a few more weeks till the end of the World Cup.

The book takes us through the background to their relationship and the qualification campaign that saw the memorable 1-0 win vs. Holland in Landowne Road. By necessity, the later stages of the book become a retelling of the Saipan story and an overview of Ireland’s World Cup games.  Unfortunately the great ‘what-if’ remains whether the Keane/McCarthy dynamic could have driven Ireland further in what remains the weakest World Cup in years.

The book was an enjoyable nostalgia trip and a good insight into the dynamics behind the Irish team in the later stages of McCarthy’s first spell in charge (it also brought back much more painful memories of Ian Harte’s spell as a starting international centre-back). It’s a short and well written book that any Irish football fan would enjoy.

As McCarthy takes the reins again, it will be fascinating to see whether he can recreate the team spirit and dynamism in a team that no longer has the world class talents of Robbie Keane, Damian Duff, and the one and only Roy Keane.

  The Gaffers